Ten-minutes into watching Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck cower, twitch, and bumble across the screen and through the urban decay of his world, I began wondering how writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver were going to twist this tortured soul into the Clown Prince of Crime. But this Joker isn’t the zany, plot-hatching crime boss that Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger embodied so memorably in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film, The Dark Knight. This Joker is one of society’s untouchables who, through a series of misfortunes, discoveries and impulses, blunders his way into the persona of chaos that continues to unnerve and tantalize us. In its depiction of Fleck’s quixotic descent, Joker is as much about the spectators as it is about its tragic spectacle.
Most akin in technique and tone to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Joker is set in a Regan-era-esque Gotham, where millionaires thrive, mental health services are slashed, and masses of the poor are left to languish on sidewalks and holed away in shabby apartments. One such peon is Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and target for the displaced rage of just about everybody. He’s got a weary counselor who perfunctorily listens to his gripes, and a bag full of psychotropics, which keep a quavering lid on the urges roiling inside him.
Yet fits of laughter erupt from him; his efforts to choke them down epitomize his white-knuckled existence. His misplaced dreams of being a standup comic are stymied by his stage fright, awkwardness, and off-kilter attempts at humor. The pervading grotesqueness of the film is ameliorated only by Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s cello, which lends an empathic auditory angel to Fleck’s reedy, tremulous voice.
It is gut wrenching and uncomfortable, watching Fleck try and fail to entertain audiences, neighbors and passersby. And here’s the metatextual irony at work in Joker: we’ve come to be entertained, like Fleck’s beleaguered Gothamite audience, but we end up disgusted, regarding Fleck with pity, at best. Indeed, the pathos Fleck evokes so overwhelms it makes us want to run out of the theater. When we bought our tickets, we anticipated the films degenerative arc, but the filmmakers push us just about to the edge of leaving before violence breaks out of Fleck like one of his bizarre cackles. And we feel compelled to stay — and watch.
Fleck’s homicidal moments come almost as a relief. Fleck processes them in a private, wordless dance where he becomes fluid and graceful. More ballet than method acting, Phoenix’s physical performance transitions Fleck into the sinister, sadist clown, Joker. Still no criminal mastermind, Joker is buffoonish in his murderous stalking and scrambling around Gotham. Yet his heinous acts of bloodshed garner him the attention and laud of fellow malcontents.
It’s this turn that problematizes the film on several levels. In Hollywood films, where the mentally ill are either sages or serial killers, this film opts for the latter. In doing so, Joker depicts yet another stigmatizing portrait of people with mental illness who, statistically, are violent only to themselves. With that said, the mentally ill are uncomfortable to be around and in the face of this discomfort, the members of society flee from and ostracize them. Systems of care falter or exacerbate. In isolation and disconnection, these individuals often remain unknown and act out in ways that make connecting with them difficult if not impossible. So too is Arthur Fleck, for at the center of a throng of warped admirers he’s merely the masked figure in a tableau, his smile a rouge of his own blood.
Critics have panned Joker for its lack of humor and homages to 1970s cult film favorites. They’ve also reacted against the film’s illusive or absent message. But in doing so, they’ve missed the point of this psychological thriller, which merely borrows comic book material to make its societal comment. In its conclusion, the film shows its moral core, addressing the problem of evil—a topic befuddling theologians and philosophers alike.
In the face of societal problems, media moralizes, counselors offer platitudes, politicians mischaracterize in ways that are hurtful and dismissive, and average denizens disengage or exalt extremes. In the same way that Jack Ritchie’s “For All the Rude People” prompts us to consider how we treat others, Joker forces us to confront how we see (or don’t see) the mentally marginalized.