The most controversial film of the year has arrived. Is it a tale about morally corrupted societies? Or maybe it’s one of the most visceral images of depression Hollywood’s ever made?
This article contains spoilers concerning “Joker”.
It’s been a week since I’ve seen Todd Phillips’ “Joker”. After all this time, the images of Joaquin Phoenix dancing in a bathroom still haunt me, while several pieces from the ominous soundtrack are played on repeat. That may not be uber healthy – to think so extensively about a movie with a sociopath in its centre – but aren’t we all still shaken by what the guy behind “The Hangover” delivered?
I know I am.
One thing I’ve seen online got me thinking about “Joker” even more. A comment I stumbled upon quoted an African proverb:
A child who is not embraced by its village will burn it down to feel its warmth.
In an avalanche of quotes, ripped straight from the film, this one sentence drummed in my ears harder than anything else.
Stories about evil often try to understand its roots. Because to understand the reasons you must first look at the origins.
And that’s what Todd Phillips’ “Joker” does phenomenally. Within the two hours of screen time, “Joker” pulls you into the darkest places imaginable, only to drain you out of hope and leave in a miserable state of doubt, where the existence of moral compass appears like a vague mirage.
In the depths of this scary vivisection of a comic book character lies a story about an individual’s pain, unjust and wrong. And even though this guy is a murderer, you probably can’t deny that a tiny fraction of you felt sorry for that guy.
And that’s what draws me so much.
The moral ambiguity, and the easiness of how we – audiences around the world – got entangled in the narrative that suggests that Arthur Fleck deserves our compassion.
But in order to understand why does work this way, let’s first look at the narrative’s structure in “Joker”.
The fall of Arthur Fleck
When the first scene of “Joker” comes round, Joaquin Phoenix gazes into his painted face, trying to bring a smile when a lone teardrop messes with the make-up.
That’s not the epic villain intro we got to see in “The Dark Knight” or even “Batman”.
Joker’s not heralded by sinister laugh or a sudden callous outburst. Instead, Phillips instigates the reign of realism. A creepily hunched man, skinny and withdrawn, limns an image of despair, closer to the vividly terrifying “Mechanic” (much more than “The King of Comedy”, so repeatedly mentioned by film critics).
Phillips intentionally does that to evoke pity in his audience right from the start. Although you and I know that Fleck would eventually transform into a maniacal sadist, the beginning of this journey signals a long, tough trip.
And that’s what it is. Fleck’s kicked by the society several times, beaten up, left with no help, even disregarded by his own mother. He’s not a recluse of choice, but a product of crude society, which would rather spit on him than lend a helping hand.
On top of it comes his crippling state of mind. A tourette’s-like laughter that brings about only trouble, and results in Fleck’s mandatory visits to a governmental facility for mental health treatment. Yet again nobody’s there to help Arthur, and he’s left with all the commotion inside his head.
However, the narrative doesn’t want us to feel he’s already a lost cause. Unlike many other movies where villains or bad guys represent darkness right from the start, Arthur has goodness inside. He takes care of his sick mother, and dreams of being a comedian. Phillips adds this layer to cloud our judgment and make it less black-or-white.
Eventually, the dim light of hope dies out, giving grounds to his darker side’s takeover.
The rise of the Joker
Do you recall the scene when Arthur Fleck rushes to a public restroom, right after reaching a point of no return in Gotham’s subway?
I was overwhelmed by its meaningfulness and symbolism. “Joker” had its fair share of memorable moments, but this one scene encapsulated rawness, and tragedy, along with the film’s saddening beauty. Until that moment, Arthur Fleck waged a personal war, fighting back his demons, luring him at every corner. Yet the moment Arthur killed these three men on the subway, he finally felt liberated, as if the last particle of goodness evaporated and left space for Joker.
Phillips cunningly shifted dancing into an omen of terror, a grotesque dans macabre, performed in a resenting public restroom. But the dancing part isn’t there only to look cool. That’s a sign informing us how Arthur’s mind deflects what’s just happened. As if to ease the stress, Arthur begins his ritualistic routine, forgetting himself in each muscle, bend and move.
This scene represents Joker taking over, but also Arthur’s real lack of empathy.
Like cancer, the darker side grows stronger and consumes sanity. Joker begins to spread havoc, basks in the glory of chaos and a symbol he ignited in people’s hearts. That’s the perversity of Phillips at play and at best – just like the Batman gave hope and stood for a change, Joker too leads the crowd. To quote Michael Caine’s line from “The Dark Knight” he watches the world burn.
A different kind of Joker
Destruction’s there, sadism too, but it’s quite obvious the newest iteration of DC’s iconic villain is entirely different than Heath Ledger’s take.
We had no reason to feel sorry for that lunatic spraying bullets, because Christopher Nolan didn’t want to add this layer of doubt. If his Joker was given such psychological background, Batman wouldn’t be as much of a hero at the end of the day.
Ledger’s Joker wanted to see the world burn, as he was an advocate of chaos. That’s his religion. There was more “The Clockwork Orange” in that guy than anybody suspected. And the only means to end his madness is to see who’s behind the mask of Batman, and prove his point that society is driven by human primal instincts.
Joaquin’s Joker isn’t propelled by the same urge to sow destruction. The Molotov cocktails and swinging bats weren’t there by his order. While he’s certainly in his elements among flames, robberies and clown masks, Arthur Fleck’s story makes you mad, simply because this guy seemed to be within the range of a cure to his own depression.
And then the question arrives:
Could Arthur Fleck be saved then?
The question that nagged me the most, was whether Arthur Fleck, the hunched guy sitting in front of a dim-lit mirror from the opening scene, ever had a chance of being happy, or at least accepted.
Or was it a Greek tragedy all along, and cruel fate would always push him over the edge, so that Arthur would fall into the pit of Joker’s venom, and there’s simply no other end of this story?
At first, it seemed that Phillips wished for the first. Arthur Fleck is misunderstood and mistreated, although the way it is portrayed feels somehow mechanic, almost too somber at times. But that’s the point of bringing him to the level of rats snooping in the trash that’s been piling up due to the strike in Gotham. In the eye of the society, Fleck’s that very rat. He cries and needs help, but nothing positive ever arrives.
Frankly, that’s the only part where “Joker” fails to meet its premise.
After deliberately turning an iconic villain into a relatable character, Phillips lacked the courage to push the story further into that space of twisted morality. What made comic-book Joker’s philosophy so alluring was that the moral compass he used pointed in the right direction, no matter how we detested his actions. That’s why Nolan’s Joker became this cult figure too. For all the wrong reasons, we all saw the sense he made.
In “Joker”, however, Arthur Fleck deserves only pity and mercy. I couldn’t buy the “world could be a happier place” stuff, simply because of the finish line waiting ahead. I felt for him in the most crushing moments – like the hospital files reveal – but his message about rich and poor isn’t credible on its own, neither is his philosophy that people don’t care at all. While we all agree that the world is cold and cruel, a self-loathing guy with a gun won’t turn it any percentile better.
Furthermore, you can’t blame society and only society for his eventual darkening. Arthur and Joker were like Jekyll and Hyde, two sides of the same coin. A madman was there long before we saw him on the screen, sitting in a dressing room. And while Phillips blurs our vision, the mental instability, fuelled by the self-pity and anger developed over time, forged a monster.
“Joker” isn’t revolutionary, but it’s goddamn good at what it stands for
I think that what solidifies “Joker” as a highlight of this year – apart from its craft, Joaquin Phoenix’s phenomenal acting, great score and other virtues – is its serious treatment of depression.
“The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave like you don’t.“, says Arthur Fleck at some point in the film.
There are many shades of blue. Some say that depression keeps you reluctant, as if your body and mind hinge to the vague idea of slipping through the days, until the endless stream of their sum tires you more than you can withhold. Others picture it as wearing a smile while your soul cries.
No matter what’s said, written or discussed about it, depression is scary.
And I’ve seen its devastating outcomes myself. I’ve seen a friend wallow in sadness, and the most terrifying part’s you often can’t help it. People like to believe that depression can be fought with others by one’s side. But the true battle ground is inside the head. And that’s what is also executed superbly in “Joker”. In the truly heart-breaking piece, Arthur admits that “all he has are negative thoughts“. That’s a line that leaves a hollow ringing in every person who witnessed or has seen depression from a close perspective.
Will “Joker” join the ranks of all-time classics?
One of the articles I saw on Indiewire (pardon me for no link here, but I’d rather save your eyes from burning out) butchered “Joker” for its shallowness, and the way its skin-deep narrative poorly mimics David Fincher’s “Fight Club”.
“Fight Club” was also about a mentally ill person, who escaped into violence, only to hide from reality. A controversial film like that had to stir the pot, and by the time people realised it’s not that stunning after all, “Fight Club” has already become a cult movie.
Is it justifiable to compare these two films?
Sure, why not. You could compare “Joker” to “Star Wars” too, because you’re free to do so. Freedom os speech, right?
“Joker” draws from many films, but so did “Fight Club” or any other film from this century. Phillips’s mash-up includes “The King of Comedy”, ‘Taxi Driver”, “American Psycho”, but also Mike Leigh’s “Naked”, “Synecdoche, New York”, while also vibrating with aesthetics from Lars von Trier movies.
But the reason why “Joker” might be eventually forgotten, is that Phillips is too focused on using the story to comment current times and problems. There is criticism of Trump, but also a painful truth about callousness, numbness and prefer-not-to-lookness around. “Joker” points fingers, and Phillips smartly used a symbol not only fanboys wanted to see. Because let’s be honest – would any other character generate that many discussions?
Yet this story isn’t as universal as it could have been. That’s where this film might not defend itself in years to come.
But if there’s one thing I hope it achieves is waking us up to other people’s hurt. tEven in most decadent times, we have to look at others, and leave Instagram-fueled self-indulgence behind. It’s about time we did that.
What were your thoughts about “Joker”? Share them in comments.
Want to read more about “Joker”?
- Check out the best fan-made posters of the movie
- Read why this movie won a prestigious award during a film festival in Venice (and how it paved its way to be even more of a buzz)