Toward the end of Todd Phillips’ new film, “Joker,” a man finds himself trapped in an apartment. His friend has been brutally murdered in front of him and he can’t reach the lock to let himself out. It’s terrifying, yet as I sat in the theater watching, I was surrounded by laughter. The audience chuckling at the man’s predicament. I sat there with my mouth open, feeling like I was trapped with the man. I bring up this experience as I think it illustrates my main issue with this troubling, beautiful comic book feature. It doesn’t know what it signifies, and neither does the audience. There is plenty to praise in the presentation, but the conflicting subject matter and source material are what ultimately steer things off course.
Dissonance aside, Joker is a beautiful film. The gritty Gotham brings to mind “Taxi Driver’s” New York. A haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir provides a sorrowful backbone for this drab reality. Joaquin Phoenix brings his usual dedication to the titular role as well. His portrayal of growing insanity is frightening in its explosive episodes. His actions during these sequences are also where the trouble begins.
What is the message of Joker? It seems that Phillips, who also co-wrote the script, wanted to comment on certain societal trends. He takes us into the mind of Arthur Fleck, a man who has been rejected by society. Working a demeaning job and living with his decrepit mother, Fleck is constantly beaten down. Whether it be mentally through citizens that jab at his nervous fits of laughter; or physically, as young hoodlums attack him. Every action he takes leads to disappointment until he discovers that violence can bring change.
During a confrontation with some yuppies, Arthur is pushed too far and murders them in self-defense. He realizes a sense of power that propels him further into madness. The nature of his crime also resonates with other downtrodden members of Gotham City’s population. They don clown masks and assemble in the streets, insisting that the poor must rise and fight the rich. “The rich” in this world being exemplified by none other than Thomas Wayne, the father of a would-be caped crusader. As Wayne’s bid for political office gains steam, so does the animosity of the populous. These elements of mental health and classist struggle might suggest a political statement, but their meaning is unclear.
Joker’s politics are muddy at best, and problematic simplifications at worst. In the case of Arthur, we are given a mentally ill man that can only interact with the world through violence. Why? Because the city’s social services have lost their funding. Then we have the aggrieved masses of Gotham city which are reduced to “the poor” in their protests placards. According to Phillips and company, when push comes to shove these people will turn into homicidal maniacs incapable of reasonable dialog. We are given a world that is black and white; bad/good, poor/rich, mental illness/normal behavior. All of which is compounded by the character it centers around.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and the Joker is a hammer. As a character he comes with a certain cultural understanding: he’s evil. Will the average viewer take this story as a nuanced examination of how not to treat the less fortunate, or will they view the violence and hatred as just another example of the Joker being evil? When I reflect on the laughter arising in my theater, I can’t help but think the latter is more likely. This leaves us with a film that shows graphic violence for the sake of showing it. People are killed in brutally cruel ways, for what? To show that individuals will commit atrocities when they are marginalized? You can pull up a search engine right now and find videos of live executions online, but is that art? It’s one thing to say the world is a bad place, and it’s another thing to try and change that. Joker might look and sound good, but under this veneer it’s as shallow as the “society” it claims to be critiquing.