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.

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