Joker Is Almost… Well. Not Quite (Spoilers)

Jok­er is almost a good film, and its almost-ness inspired me to write down some inchoate reac­tions to why it didn’t work. The film has many of the ele­ments that would make it com­pelling and wor­thy — out­stand­ing pro­duc­tion, a tone that is edgy and uncom­fort­able, and of course Joaquin Phoenix being extreme­ly com­pelling. But ulti­mate­ly this is a movie about a sad clown who goes off his meds and decides to become a mur­der­ous vil­lain because, I guess, he’s upset his mom lied to him and his stand up sucks, so noth­ing mat­ters? Yeah, that’s not an exag­ger­a­tion.

About two-thirds of the way into the film, after detec­tives began to fol­low Phoenix’s Arthur in sus­pi­cion that he had killed three men who were beat­ing him up on the sub­way, I was won­der­ing if this film was try­ing to make a com­men­tary about men­tal health and society’s oblig­a­tions to peo­ple who suf­fer from it. There is one reveal­ing moment where we see Joker’s note­book, and in huge block let­ters he wrote “the hard­est thing about hav­ing men­tal ill­ness is every­one wants you to pre­tend you don’t.”

There is a lot to unpack with that reveal. For one, that is a com­mon refrain heard from advo­cates for de-stig­ma­tiz­ing men­tal ill­ness. Yet here, it is being turned on its head: Arthur tells his case work­er, plain­ly, that he is men­tal­ly ill and con­stant­ly has neg­a­tive thoughts; she ignores him and whines about her­self. Rather than grap­ple with a sys­tem that lets a man tell a state work­er he is unwell and the state ignores him, Arthur nev­er real­ly revis­its that idea at any point in the rest of the film — and by the end of it, he’s rant­i­ng about how bankers deserve to be mur­dered, inspir­ing a mass move­ment that ends up killing a lot of cops, appar­ent­ly, and no one else.

And this is the prob­lem with how the movie unfolds. It hints, at first, at being a fas­ci­nat­ing look at how men­tal ill­ness com­bined with soci­etal dis­in­ter­est can dri­ve a man to the brink — a sort of revis­it­ing of the crim­i­nal­ly under­rat­ed Michael Dou­glas film Falling Down (direct­ed by Joel Schu­mach­er, him­self a Bat­man alum). But then it nev­er goes any­where.

Much like in Schumacher’s film, you see pieces of how a city is falling apart around the main char­ac­ter, though Schu­mach­er was more ground­ed in the real rea­sons why cities go through social unrest. In Jok­er, on the oth­er hand, it’s sort of just hap­pen­ing — there is a garbage strike, but we nev­er learn why. A woman who lives in Arthur’s build­ing jokes casu­al­ly about sui­cide in front of her daugh­ter and laughs that the bank she works at should be robbed, but we nev­er learn why. There is a car­toon kar­ma at work when we see three Wall Street bros being pricks on the sub­way, because they are prompt­ly mur­dered for it).

Peo­ple are appar­ent­ly primed and eager to protest and riot at the near­est avail­able gath­er­ing of rich peo­ple and we are nev­er told why. Hell, the social ser­vices pro­gram that funds the detached and inef­fec­tive case work­er who loads up Arthur with med­ica­tion is de-fund­ed for… rea­sons we are nev­er made aware of. Lat­er, he becomes glee­ful about vio­lence when he stops tak­ing them, say­ing he feels much bet­ter: again, this is a com­mon trope about men­tal­ly ill peo­ple but the film nev­er goes any­where with it. It could have talked about how a cowork­er casu­al­ly giv­ing him a gun (hooray gun cul­ture!) cre­at­ed the con­di­tions for him to kill at least four peo­ple with it, but instead it’s just “well bad peo­ple are bad and they do bad things.” But then a weird pop­ulist thing is tacked on top of every­thing else, and I just don’t know where to go with it.

There has always been this weird plight-of-the-work­ing-man under­cur­rent to Jok­er sto­ry­lines, at least in the films, but this one more than the rest nev­er does any­thing with it. In Tim Burton’s ver­sion, the Jok­er was nev­er real­ly a pop­ulist, just a nar­cis­sis­tic dick who manip­u­lat­ed peo­ple to gain pow­er — same, too, in Christo­pher Nolan’s film. But here, the Jok­er is a true Man of the Peo­ple, trod­den upon by the cack­ling 1% and, by the end of it, rev­el­ing in the cheers of the peo­ple as they burn down the edi­fices of cap­i­tal­ism around him.

I’m just say­ing, Marx­ists would have a lot to say about this, but direc­tor Todd Phillips couldn’t be both­ered.

Any­way. Not every­thing in a movie needs expla­na­tion. And men­tal ill­ness is not caused by soci­ety break­ing down, though it cer­tain­ly doesn’t help. These could all be col­or for the film, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing Joker’s descent into mad­ness as a mir­ror for how the city itself is descend­ing into mad­ness, but then it begins to drop hints about want­i­ng to make a big­ger point. Right before he shoots a tele­vi­sion host in the head on live TV, Arthuer, now in full regalia as The Jok­er, rants about civil­i­ty. When peo­ple are riot­ing and steal­ing tele­vi­sions from burned out store­fronts while wear­ing jok­er masks, one runs past with a ban­ner that says RESIST.

Why are these nec­es­sary? What do they add to a film that oth­er­wise grounds itself in a very late 70s or ear­ly 80s era, to throw in such 21st cen­tu­ry anachro­nisms? I’m afraid it might have been an attempt to turn the film into a dread­ed polit­i­cal com­men­tary, and that’s where it just doesn’t work at all.

Jok­er could have been an inter­est­ing sto­ry about a man los­ing him­self as a city gripped with aus­ter­i­ty and cut­ting ser­vices is col­laps­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly. It could have turned the moment where Robert DeNiro is mock­ing Arthur’s stand up on his talk show into a reflec­tion on how the mass media humil­i­ates peo­ple through dog­pil­ing. It could have leaned into what hap­pens when some­one is sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mis­treat­ed his entire life, first by abu­sive par­ents, then an abu­sive soci­ety, and made us ask whether it is ever jus­ti­fi­able to adopt vio­lence as a response to that. It could have con­front­ed us with the inequal­i­ties in our own soci­ety and asked if that was dri­ving peo­ple to des­per­a­tion, and what that des­per­a­tion might even­tu­al­ly mean. And it could have asked what kind of elites should we tol­er­ate if they will let the soci­ety they con­trol decay to the point where riot­ers take to the streets. These are all themes in the mod­ern Bat­man films, but those films do us the cour­tesy of not pre­tend­ing to be Deep. Jok­er one does not have such respect for its audi­ence.

Instead, we get 4Chan: The Movie. It’s just about the lulz. This is a revenge fan­ta­sy for peo­ple who got kicked out of the Some­thing Awful forums, so don’t ask any ques­tions. A guy had a real­ly bad day, mur­dered his moth­er, a cowork­er, a neigh­bor, and a tele­vi­sion host, but you see they all deserved it for being so mean to him. That’s why Arthur mur­ders peo­ple, real­ly. They say it quite plain­ly: peo­ple were mean to him, so there­fore he killed them (when one minor char­ac­ter is not mean to him, he spares the guy’s life).

This is incel log­ic, not reflec­tion. It’s vis­cer­al but with­out weight. It pro­claims itself seri­ous, but then has noth­ing to say.

Con­sid­er the tedious and poor­ly han­dled Wayne par­ents mur­der scene — which is so bor­ing to watch by now because it’s hap­pened so often it has no emo­tion­al weight, espe­cial­ly with the poor child actor play­ing young Bruce is instruct­ed to be dead-faced in every scene. Here, it is tacked on, like Moe Siz­zlack at the end of that Simp­sons episode based on Lord of the Flies. Thomas Wayne is pre­sent­ed as unsym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly as pos­si­ble; he is on TV telling the poor they are clowns, then his mur­der is por­trayed as the nat­ur­al con­se­quence of not pay­ing enough atten­tion to work­ing class white men. It doesn’t derive from any of Wayne’s choic­es, apart from tak­ing an alley to avoid lit­er­al dump­ster fires. And there’s no rea­son for the ran­do in the mask to have killed him and stolen the pearl neck­lace. It is as clum­sy and poor­ly thought through as Star Trek Into Dark­ness.

That’s what is so frus­trat­ing about this film. It is close to being inter­est­ing, but there just isn’t enough to redeem it. It is a car­toon moral­i­ty play, one that makes actu­al car­toons seem sophis­ti­cat­ed by com­par­i­son.

Con­sid­er one of the final scenes, when Arthur is dressed up as the Jok­er before going on a tele­vi­sion show. Two cops were just beat­en at a clown riot (yes, that real­ly hap­pens), and Mark Maron (play­ing him­self play­ing his char­ac­ter in G.L.O.W., appar­ent­ly) tells him he can’t make a polit­i­cal state­ment by wear­ing that make up. “I’m not polit­i­cal,” The Jok­er says. “I don’t believe in any­thing.” Like so much else in this film, it hints at some­thing inter­est­ing hap­pen­ing — after all, moments lat­er he gives his rant about civil­i­ty and car­ing for each oth­er then mur­ders a guy — but it goes nowhere. Shouldn’t that be a reflec­tion on how peo­ple who claim they’re not polit­i­cal are the most polit­i­cal of all, because they use a pre­tend neu­tral­i­ty to avoid ques­tion­ing soci­etal injus­tice?

Appar­ent­ly not. In the end, a movie that does so much to make itself feel weighty and inter­est­ing and ground­ed falls apart under its own pre­ten­tious­ness. It hints at inter­est­ing­ness, but its choic­es feel arbi­trary. And it’s ham-fist­ed attempt to ratio­nal­ly explain why some­one would just mur­der peo­ple — and get praised for it! — nev­er goes any­where.

This could have been so inter­est­ing as a film, but instead it is instead lit­tle more than the com­ments sec­tion to some blog you’ll for­get to click past and then regret read­ing through.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.