“It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself. . . . But who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like to be me?” – Hans Beckert, M
* * *
Joker has this effect that Beckert describes, of evil actions following in the footsteps of someone who believes himself to be spiritually innocent. It’s true in the sense that Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shadow of the supervillain he could be and also that Phoenix himself is underneath the text of this part: Fleck’s flagellation is Phoenix’s too. The stocky actor with embers for eyes has reduced himself by half to play bony Fleck; this seems to have concentrated him. He’s a skeleton juggernaut in this movie; people leave the theater drunk on his allure. Director Todd Phillips takes a comic book character and tries to understand his drive. He borrows symbols and shots from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (he skins them: his film would have no face without them), yet his story is at least as much like the social parable in Fritz Lang’s M, which was about a sick man ignored and ultimately shunned by society because of sickness (and both have the tone of a plea). But this film history cloning doesn’t sync with the new ideas: Phillips and Scott Silver write a film not only about a sick man but sick on itself, so much that its actor’s great work seems like an abuse. They use Phoenix up, in a movie so blatantly crafted to engender sympathy that they make the jagged poetry of the performance a meaningless exercise in genre. Madness is more like its aesthetic than its subject.
In the great madness narratives, the screenwriter immerses us in a madman’s perspective without justifying his actions; a subject of sympathy is far less complex than a subject about whom you wonder if sympathy could apply. Travis Bickle’s world expressed itself to him, but it was in his posture toward it that we could see the lifetime of perspective that results in madness; just the posture of his shoulders at the diner where he sees a black man drinking coffee, just the tension in his eyebrows, allows us to see the racism in his gaze. It’s all we need: it’s an eternity of experience in a moment, made scary not by the fact that Travis is so weird but that he’s so normal. The film doesn’t explain his racism because it’s a complex evil practiced to the point of terrifying normalcy, built up over a lifetime of perspective, and to explain it would risk simplifying it down to the level on which things can be accidentally condoned. Consider if Taxi Driver opened with Travis getting mugged by a black man and having his taxi stolen, or if Lang thought that getting into Beckert’s head required that the girls he kills ridicule and demean him first so we could see his point. Now put that glance back in context: we can now pretend to explain “why” he’s racist, or “why” he kills. The moral reduction that results from getting this information would take the meaning out of the perspective; it would allow us to justify in a movie something that cannot be justified in life. This is how a movie like Joker can be about so much, and mean so little.
Through explicitness, Joker creates its own version of this problem. Arthur Fleck lives in a world where feelings of paranoia and isolation are extreme and also warranted. Consider the opening: after the old white-on-red Warners logo and throwback font, Arthur gets beaten up in broad daylight by street kids; onlookers respond coldly, as they would in the New York City of Death Wish. The instigators of Arthur’s transformation are so literal that changing toward them is not a matter of his perspective. When he meets a second group of kids, imagine Travis’s reaction: he would be twisted by experience into seeing them as part of the same evil as the kids that beat him up at the beginning; we’d know this just by the way he’d look at them, that they’ve become part of his “me vs. the world” mentality. Conversely, Arthur doesn’t mind them, but he should have: they beat him up too; he would have been right to stereotype them. He has to shoot them out of self-defense because they are literally part of the same evil that began his journey; he doesn’t go to the police because the literalness of the objective requires that this world not even be given a chance to make things right. The movie’s system of morality is so explicit that it explains away the depth of feeling in how a person’s perspective can change the way he views the world, which is the core of any character study. The movie is a character study, but these literal transitionary moments put the character part on autopilot.
Phillips’s tactic of forcefully justifying paranoia with constant acts of aggression makes it hard to know when Arthur is supposed to be considered a villain, since every violent act is cushioned in the script by a cause for revenge. Even his cruelest moment is predicated on a dossier of wrongdoing that explains everything he needs to know to hate his victim enough to kill them. Killing them is still wrong, but the kind of wrong that audiences can perceive as just cause (it would be considered fair play on The Walking Dead). We may know that his actions are immoral, but there’s no sinking feeling when they happen, nothing close to the enclosure of cruelty in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or that moment in Monster when Aileen Wuornos’s justification for her evil deeds finally runs out. In Joker, even killing a friend must be preceded in the script by a betrayal. The gore in Phillips’s film is satisfying; people clapped in my theater. The story’s method skews its message.
I’ve heard a lot of people defend this movie with the tone of a rebuttal to a conversation that hasn’t happened yet, claiming that anyone who thinks Fleck’s narrative contains sympathy just didn’t understand that the protagonist is a villain and can’t be trusted. But I think it might be best to hear it from my mother, who says everything straight, as though the story of Arthur Fleck is a documentary. After the film ended, she turned to me and said, “Maybe Batman was a little hard on him, huh.” To me, it doesn’t matter if he’s technically a villain because sympathy is the pulse of the audience that sees a movie where a character is given over-literal reasons to be angry at the world; he’s no more a “villain” in the mind of the audience than Tyler Durden is. I think Phillips and Silver’s script intended to set up a villain, not to condone his actions, but to establish a way for us to relate to how he condones them himself. But the context of an underdog surviving in an excessively aggressive world obscures the issue with forced attempts at clarity; the result feels more like V for Vendetta. Joker is really close to being an anti-hero.
Make no mistake about my meaning: the media narrative that Joker encourages violence or tacitly condones shootings is nonsense, as nonsensical as an argument that M promotes rape culture. The tiny truth in that claim (which many journalists have falsely extrapolated into a political narrative) is that the Joker screenplay works so explicitly to bring sympathy to Arthur that it’s hard to tell what the movie’s message even is. Part of the layer of ego that you have to skim off the top when you watch it is that the movie would probably take this as a compliment.
Conflicting information is a constant occurrence in the Joker script. Arthur’s therapist, after telling him that the government cut their funding, says, “They don’t care about people like you . . . or me.” But part of the meaning of the therapist character is that she doesn’t care about Arthur either (she spends their sessions in a daze – Arthur seems markedly more unhappy because of them). So to be clear, the government cut funding for therapy that demeaned and belittled Arthur and did him no good; doing so is then retroactively portrayed as Arthur losing his support group. Phillips writes the therapist’s dialogue as though she’s telling us the theme of the movie, but she’s someone who had been established as part of the problem. You end up having to think of most characters in Joker as Phillips himself, whispering in your ear what you’re learning at any given time. No other interpretation makes much sense.
This kind of moment-to-moment meaning makes Arthur’s motivation a yo-yo of inconsistency and attempted truths. Joker claims to have no political identity and also makes political speeches. I’m sure there are people out there who treat this as evidence of his “chaotic nature,” but I believe it’s better evidence of the writers wanting to eat their cake without deciding on the record if they ever had it. Even when Arthur spurts a kempt neo-Bolshevik narrative about the working class rising up and killing the rich, he’s speaking things that are presented as truths by circumstance, in the context of someone who is justifying evil deeds through madness, in a movie that some people say is evil because it condones violence, whose defenders say that him being technically a villain makes people who feel sympathy toward him the ones who are wrong. It would be very generous to call this kind of contradiction “deep,” the kind that can’t seem to make up its mind and hopes that this alone will be perceived as meaningful (such conversations have never been so forcibly contradictory surrounding There Will Be Blood, for instance). There’s even a general hint that the entire thing could be Joker’s own sympathy narrative, told from his perspective to a therapist in the asylum. But in that case, is the film’s lack of depth supposed to be a result of Joker’s self-pity, or the writers’? This is a script that can’t commit even to ambiguity; even that is still left up to us.
This isn’t entirely the fault of Joker, which has a tricky inheritance. There’s an undeniably infectious energy to this character (that hospital that blows up in The Dark Knight is evacuated first, and I wonder if it’s because there’s no way we wouldn’t condone Joker’s charm, so Nolan wanted to make sure we weren’t condoning too much). I don’t mind that Joker has the ambition to be nothing but a drama; it establishes a tragic character, and subjects him to the gravity of a tragic world. But it does so in a way that reminds me of the teenagers who draw Guy Fawkes masks in their composition notebooks. They’re the ones eye-level with this philosophy, which through conflicting and missing information is really just a “fight the power” blurb, when you get down to it, with a bunch of blatant character moments that serve as turnstiles to the next act. The much-touted staircase scene, far more poetic in the trailer, in the movie is an infantile self-congratulations anthem accompanied by a Gary Glitter song. It was not made to be legendary: it was made for thirteen-year-olds to call it that.
But if it falters in its purpose, it thrives in the performance. As many of you already know, Phoenix lifts this movie and makes it much more confusing to talk about; without him, no one would be mistaking Joker for a masterpiece.
When the film uses Phoenix, it uses him up. This actor is a martyr to himself at this point in his career: Arthur Fleck, like his character in The Master, seems tortured with a terrifying coming-into-being, with the struggle to destruct the fantasy and re-become a man called Joaquin Phoenix. There’s meta-text in his work now, in his struggling bones and trails of hair. Scenes where he dances and leers are transformative; his gaze is moving and haunting; his ribs are prominent and terribly pale. The moment he becomes Joker in his head is transcendent, and in a gross public restroom, and entirely reliant on Phoenix’s heady weightlessness (and far superior to the staircase). He lures you into this movie. His madness comes tumbling down in roaring descent and working-class revelations; I think I even heard church bells over the Glitter.
He’s much more ambiguous than the narrative he performs, which is full of tragic dossiers and isms; when the film doubts our interpretation of events, it might choose to write the theme into a notebook and show it to the camera. This must be the only film in history that sets up a hallucinatory protagonist but never uses him to foreshadow anything (one moment does factor into that, but it’s so unlikely for the character it concerns that it’s more relieving than horrifying: I was so glad that the film was merely poorly paced, and not also demeaning to an underused character whose identity I won’t spoil). Despite the film’s scope increasing to the level of one of the Joker’s power fantasies, nothing ever feels unreliable or ambiguous. Exposition just feels like the movie’s attempt at truth (you could play movie serial killer bingo with Phillips’s idea of plot revelations). The result is an ironic amount of convention in a film that could have been as impressionistic as its artist wanted. Lawrence Sher’s gracious cinematography captures Phoenix but never grapples with time and space in a creative way; flashbacks are played for very clear story points, and pop in at the most expected times, and tell us things we could have predicted just knowing the premise of the movie. There’s a calm literalness to it that dissuades you from thinking of insanity.
In the realm of comic book cinema, this comes closer to a genuine feeling than the villain-of-the-week serial adventure toyboxes that keep coming out. Other than distracting appearances by young Bruce Wayne – irresistibly, it seems, tying Joker into Batman mythology that doesn’t exist yet, and which it does not need – Joker stands apart from other comic book movies and even from its own material (though I’m sure Phoenix would have been much happier in a movie called “Arthur”). It plays on insanity cinema without letting itself get too deep into it to be dangerous (it knows less about the fantasy of a madman’s perspective even than Bronson, which was an impression of a real man). The movie shies from Joker’s more intriguing extremes, like his history of pansexuality and transvestitism; of course, it’s still going for that plushy weekend crowd, who are in the business of being told that art is challenging, but not necessarily in the business of being challenged. What’s the difference? I believe it would be the challenge of making a movie where we know what it’s like to be the villain, without necessarily wanting to be them. Merely as an aesthetic alternative to other superhero cinema, Phoenix’s performance alone contains more art than the majority of the movies it fraternizes with. But there’s better cinema lying around everywhere; it can do Joker’s entire thesis in a single glance.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the film’s trailer.