[This is a spoiler-free review. If you want to include spoilers in the comments please use spoiler tags, or you can comment at the film’s Spoil Sports.]
Maybe he just resonated with me, more than I expected, and more than I was comfortable with. I’m not a guy anymore, but I know what it’s like to be one. I don’t know if I have any mental illness or neurodivergence, but I might; and I know how it feels when the whole world seems to function on a different wavelength than you. I don’t suffer from bouts of uncontrollable laughter, but I do regularly laugh at strange moments, causing people to assure me that what they’re saying is true. I never know how to tell them that I wasn’t doubting them, I just found it somehow funny – maybe I’m afraid of what they’ll think if I do.
And I know how it feels, to try and be happy even when you’re not, until it starts to eat away at you from the inside; and how it feels to be angry and bitter at the world, at those times when it seems full of people who only want to be selfish and cruel. I’ve never suffered all that greatly, and I’ve never wanted to act out in violence, but on some level… I get it.
Joker is a disturbing movie. It’s not easy to watch, and it’s not easy to think about. I remember the initial derision when the trailer came out – I was part of it. (At one point I wrote here “It looks terrible AND I CAN’T WAIT!”) And yet the movie surprised me. I guess I can’t really say I was “pleasantly surprised” – there’s not much about it that is pleasant. But it is powerful, and striking, and a lot smarter and more empathetic than it initially seemed.
Arthur’s journey towards violence and nihilism is painful, and it takes him (and us) through the intersections of underfunded mental healthcare and class disparity. As he is gradually failed, abandoned, hurt, or betrayed by almost everyone around him, and as his safety networks and support systems fall apart, we see him change before our eyes. Not just the physical changes – the makeup, the costume, the tone of voice, the body language, the gun. We see him change in spirit – through despair, and apathy, and rage, all the way to cynicism, scorn and delight.
It feels like the filmmakers were interested, more than anything, in asking what exactly could bring someone to live the persona of a clown who spreads death and destruction for little more than his own amusement. The answer they reached is messy and frightening.
In this way, they seem to have chased the opposite goal of the last major film version of this character. Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight was anonymous (even teasing us with multiple conflicting origins), entirely cynical and ruthless, with no aspirations besides sowing chaos and laughing at the results. He was a man who had already turned himself into an archetype before we met him. By contrast, Joaquin Phoenix’s character is fully human, with a name and a family and a life – and no hope for the future. This is not the story of a man who wants to watch the world burn. It’s the story of a man who watched the world burn around him, and who ultimately wants to burn with it.
I’ll admit that at times it seemed almost too much – too dour, too overbearing, trying too hard to impress and shock. It almost felt easy, at first, to write it off as just juvenile posturing. But a lot of care was put into making it feel genuine. Todd Phillips’ and Scott Silver’s script tells a gut-wrenching horror tragedy (apart from a few choices which I’m not sure about). Lawrence Sher’s beautiful cinematography pulls us into the space and time of the story, and lets the moments breathe and fill with tension. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, though on occasion too blunt and overwhelming, evokes sorrow and stress, often both at once.
And of course part of what makes the film work is that the world isn’t actually entirely bad – if only because some of the people closest to Arthur do genuinely care and want to help; they just can’t give him what he so desperately needs. Penny, his mother (Frances Conroy), tries to encourage and support him even as it’s not clear what she wants for him. Sophie, his neighbour who later becomes his girlfriend (Zazie Beetz), seems to truly listen and understand what he means, though there are things he can’t tell her. Even his unnamed social worker (Sharon Washington) appears to care what happens to him, despite his doubts – that is, before her services are shut down, leaving him without therapy or medication.
It’s with that last point that the film manages to become more than just a memorable character study. Much like Arthur, the film might try to say that it’s not political, but clearly cares about reacting to political and social issues. The working class and the poor are caught in a hopeless struggle for survival, as the rich control everything to make themselves richer while chastising the poor for being poor. In such an environment, many might want to lash out at a system set against them. And for those who are both poor and mentally ill, who cannot afford healthcare and who lose it when welfare programs are attacked and demolished – for them it might seem truly hopeless. (Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the story interacts with the Batman mythos which birthed the Joker in the first place. And it seems eager to pull the rug out from under it – “The rich will not save us”.)
It’s for good reason that a lot of us were concerned about what effects this film might have. It was just a few years ago that the last iteration of this character seemingly inspired a mass shooting. [ETA: The shooter was not inspired by the Joker or dressed like him, this was a rumor that persists to this day. Thanks to Whovian for the clarification.] And every year, it seems like more and more men want to turn to fictional violent men for inspiration. However, now I feel even more strongly than I did before that there is worth in having films like this, which explore those kinds of violence and try to understand them. The Joker is a villain, and in a way he is no less of a villain in this film. The filmmakers don’t support him, and so it has not served as a rallying cry for similar violence. But they do want to understand him.
And if the film can inspire anything in real life, I hope it will be on that front. The world today feels like it’s going to hell, much like the Gotham City of 1981, and the New York City of the 70s-80s which inspired it. And in such a world, we need to do what we can to change things for the better. To give people the help they need, to make sure no one feels that there’s no hope.
Or maybe he just resonated with me. I’m still trying to figure it out.