Five things I read about Joker before I saw the film
• The character Joker is a proto-fascist Incel, which I disapprove of, so this is a bad film
• The character Joker is a proto-fascist Incel which I approve of, so this is a good film
• The character Joker is a proletarian class warrior which I approve of, so this is a good film
• The character Joker is a proletarian class warrior, which I disapprove of, so this is a bad film
• This is not really a comic book film
Of all these statements, only the last one made me more likely to watch the film. The moment we start judging the quality of a film based on our moral endorsement of the lead character is the moment we throw away Taxi Driver, Magnolia, and come to think of it quite a few other films starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
So, what’s it all about?
Arthur is a professional clown and aspiring stand-up comedian. His mother asks him “don’t you need to be funny to be a comedian?” I think we hear him tell 2 jokes, one of which is stolen from The Simpsons (though a pedant may argue that since this is set in the early 1980s, maybe the Simpsons stole it from him). You don’t get the feeling that he’s in his element on stage.
He’s already on 7 different medications, none of which seems to have any effect. He gets his pills from the local drop-in centre, which is due to be shut down due to government cuts. As his (black, female) social worker says “they don’t care about you, and they don’t care about me either”.
The council cuts aren’t just affecting social services. There’s currently a refuse collectors’ strike, and we hear a reporter saying that its been going on so long that “even the nice areas are starting to look like slums”. Arthur is working holding a sign advertising a closing-down sale, but this is stolen by disaffected kids who beat him up when he tries to get it back. The cost of a replacement sign is taken out of his wages.
To highlight Arthur’s problems, the film’s opening scenes contain fairly unsubtle references to other films which deal in some way with mental illness. Here is a psychiatric ward with people dressed in white just like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There is a dark set of steps lit just like the Exorcist. Here’s a softly spoken man who lives and dances with his mother, just like Psycho. And later we’ll get some fairly long “hommages” to The King of Comedy and Network.
Does this matter? Well, I think so, and not just because I get highly irritated by films which contain bits that look like other films for no other reason than the director and certain viewers want to feel good about having noticed them. (So isn’t it ironic, and possibly hypocritical, that I’m pointing out the oblique references that I noticed?) More important it reinforces the feeling that we’re being shown the Hollywood view of what mental illness is supposed to look like.
There have been some accusations that Joker stigmatizes people with psychiatric problems and I think that this is true to a certain extent. Not because it suggests that all people who are “troubled” will end up like Joker. But because the behaviour that we see on the screen doesn’t really conform to what happens in real life. Its too, shall we say Comic Book.
Nonetheless we do see a great depiction of how one man’s descent into mental instability has social rather than just psychical reasons. Lack of opportunities and access to help increases a debilitating sense of alienation. This in turn means that all the people who thinks that Arthur is a little bit weird feel confirmed in their prejudices. Yet while it is true that Arthur has some issues that can be numbed with chemicals, his ultimate problem is systemic not personal.
Parallel to Arthur’s descent, other people are reacting to the worsening situation. Demonstrations are organised that clearly blame the rich, and specifically Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce), for their plight. Thomas is a businessman who shows clear disdain for the demonstrators, denouncing them as “jokers”.
The film consistently punches up rather than down. When Arthur is mugged, his attackers are “just kids”. Nearly everyone who he comes into contact with who is nice to him is an African-American woman (plus one dwarf). Whereas the rich and powerful are almost exclusively nasty pieces of work. The pictures of street demonstrations convey much more of the righteous joy of Occupy Wall Street than the slightly creepy and self-righteous Incel marches.
So I find the general depiction of Joker as being an alt-right film to be nonsensical with one exception that’s going to need plot spoilers. If you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen it yet but don’t want to hear of something that happens late on and is fairly incidental to the general plot (but maybe not to the inevitable sequel), please skip the next two paragraphs.
For the second half of the film we see the parallel development of Arthur’s personal degeneration while a street movement emerges that is both angry and joyous. These are both reactions to the same brutal society but they are largely independent of each other. Indeed Arthur insists that he is not political and has nothing to do with the demonstrations outside.
Yet in almost the final scene, Arthur is raised up by the crowd which has moved from a festival of the oppressed to a baying mob. He is now their leader. When reviewers denounce the film as fascist, I guess its this scene they have in mind. But I think they’re wrong. This scene doesn’t betray the film’s support for Fascism, but its liberal belief that an organised movement can’t function without a Comic Book Superhero at its head.
It has now become almost compulsory to think that Joker is either the best film ever or to denounce it as dangerous trash, but I don’t want to do either. What it does well, it does well. Most of the violence (and there is a lot of violence) is contextualised as Arthur’s spontaneous (over-)reaction when he is under too much pressure to act rationally. Some of the less credible scenes are later shown to be the ravings of Arthur’s deranged imagination.
There is one scene, though, which I don’t think works, and again I’ll do my best to pussy foot around any plot spoilers. As said, most of Arthur’s violence appears in the heat of the moment, or at least when he is in a state of delayed shock. One murder, of someone who wasn’t nice to to him, is premeditated and, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t work dramatically. But maybe one reason why this scene is disappointing is that until then the film has been much more sure footed.
On top of all this, Joachim Phoenix is excellent and Robert de Niro is effectively workmanlike (how far have we gone from the time when you’d go and see a film just because de Niro is in it? Now if he doesn’t go full Dirty Grandpa on us we’re pleasantly surprized. Let’s just say that his depiction of a smarmy talk show host is suspiciously close to the behaviour of one or two real people).
And yet the film is flawed, and the more it aspires to be just another Comic Book movie, the more flawed it is. Every so often it pulls in two directions – between wanting to win our empathy and depicting over-the-top sensation. Fortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule, and we stay with it till the end.