By Amita Basu (India)
Joker (2019) squanders its potential for powerful commentary, settling instead for a fatalist vindication of violence
I wanted to like Joker. Ever since watching Batman: The Animated Series in primary school, I’ve been a fan of all things Batman. Christopher Nolan’s flawed but masterful trilogy sent me to the comic books it referenced. The comics furnish Batman with a pantheon of worthy foes, and of these, Joker was the most compelling. So when I heard a Joker origin film was imminent, featuring the quirky but considerable talents of Joaquin Phoenix, I booked tickets and went prepared to like Joker.
I didn’t. Joker is a film entirely lacking both comedy and tragedy. Instead of comedy, we’re offered a few stray chances to laugh at protagonist Arthur Fleck (Phoenix): a clown by day, an aspiring standup so lacking in comedic sensibility that his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) wonders: “What makes you think you can do that? Don’t you have to be funny?” As Joker progresses, and Fleck turns the tables, we now get a few chances to laugh at his antagonists: a colleague who double-crosses him (Glenn Fleshler), and the talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who disappoints Fleck’s search for a father-figure. Neither does Joker offer tragedy. Tragedy demands a character whose head we can enter, to look out with their eyes at their problems and their opportunities, to understand why they make the choices they do. Tragedy takes us into the crucible of suffering and moral conflict from which characters can emerge as heroes, or villains, or dead. Joker is a curiously amoral film: Fleck never makes a moral choice. Neither are we allowed to enter Fleck’s head: his sufferings are intense, but too farfetched to be credible. And the character is so systematically bizarre, it remains alien. Joker wants us to sympathise with Fleck’s actions without allowing us to enter his head.
What Joker does give us, in lieu of comedy and tragedy, is an uninterrupted hammering on the head with drama.
From its opening, Joker establishes Fleck as an underdog. He’s mentally ill, victim of a Tourette’s-like disorder that produces a hyena-like cackle, which devolves into crying then choking. He’s emaciated. Neither his mental illness nor his emaciation is explained: they’re just there to pile on the suffering. He works odd jobs as a clown, with hostile colleagues. He lives with and cares for his mother. He has no girlfriend. The paltry healthcare he receives through social services gets cut off. Oh, and Gotham City has teamed up against him: strangers gang up to kick this underdog at every street-corner. Through acts one and two, Joker substitutes narrative conflict and choice with relentless drama. Fleck never had a choice. It was merely a question of when he would snap.
In juxtaposing mental illness with guns and (spoiler alert) childhood physical abuse – while foregoing other aspects of this supervillain’s origin story – Joker set itself up to provide powerful commentary on large-scale social problems and the origins of crime. Here’s a mentally-ill, impoverished person who loses his healthcare and his access to medication. Here’s a mentally unstable young white man, regularly subject to physical abuse by strangers, whose colleague hands him a gun in a brown paper bag. “I’m not supposed to have a gun,” Fleck objects. The combination of under-managed mental illness, total lack of opportunity, and shockingly easy access to firearms sets up a story with potential for incisive analysis of the social conditions from which crime arises – the conditions that sustain the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in the United States. What does Joker have to say about its premises?
Quite a lot. In the background, the television plays headlines about things getting worse for ordinary people. Early on, Fleck sums up: “Is it just me, or are things getting worse?” He has much more to say in Act Three, as preface to and vindication of his most public crime yet: on live national television, he accuses society of mistreating him. Joker has gone out of its way to show us that Fleck is the unfunniest person alive: he laughs at the wrong bits of jokes, and flounders through his one go at the mic. Possibly, his unidentified neurological condition renders him humourless. Besides, this particular iteration of the Joker doesn’t seem too bright. Either way, it is undoubtedly sad that this man who longs to be a comic is constitutionally unfunny; even sadder that he lacks the opportunities for a dignified and well-paying job suited to his abilities. But the accusation Fleck levels at society’s hegemonic standards for humour is ridiculous, skewing dangerously alt-left. He concludes his vindication: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash? You get exactly what you deserve.” Then comes more violence. Fleck’s first crimes have already made him the hero of an Occupy Wall Street-type mob; his newest act unleashes mass violence. Fleck ascends, literally, to be figurehead of a nihilist revolution.
That Joker squanders its opportunities is tragic on three counts.
First, Phoenix’s performance alone demands a better film. The abandon with which he throws his face, in multiple close-ups, into Fleck’s meaningless spells of laughing and crying is chilling. Quieter moments, in which his face becomes a hollow mask of disappointment and only his deep-set eyes burn, are equally well-done. Phoenix’s performance alone persuaded me to sit out the film after the first act, when I’d given up on its story.
Second, the issues Joker raises contained the seed of a powerful tragedy: a complement to 2005’s Batman Begins. Joker flirts with exploring how tragedy can produce both heroes and villains – but abandons this idea, just as it abandoned a real exploration of the roots of crime and suffering in social conditions. Joker’s squandering of its own potential is itself tragic.
Third, and most important, Joker raises issues that matter to millions of people in the US and across the world. Healthcare in the US is a broken system; mental health services are particularly inadequate. This long-festering crisis has, unfortunately, only now reached public consciousness – arm-in-arm with the question of gun control, another deeply divisive issue demanding concerted action. 911 responders are unequipped to handle calls involving the mentally ill. The country’s overpopulated and ineffective penal system contains 1.2 million people who should be getting treated, not punished. The roots of crime in poverty and socioeconomic disparity are equally well-documented. Income inequality in the US has always been high, and is rising. Things are getting better: slowly, for some people, in some cases. Clearly, things need to get better, faster: but through the democratic process, not through nihilist violence. Joker points the finger at key issues threatening the wellbeing and the existence of millions of Americans. But it does so with a cynical fatalism. This is the way things are, it declares, and we can’t expect them to get better. We must take things in our own hands. And that means taking up guns, putting on masks, and reclaiming the masculinity that society has denied us. Success at any cost: to oneself, and to others.
I wanted to like Joker. I objected to fears raised about the film’s effects. After all, free speech is the pillar of democracy. I’m glad I watched it: but only for Phoenix’s performance. Joker represents at worst an abuse of free speech; and at best a by-the-numbers, black-and-white, the-worm-turns documentary of what happens when a mentally ill person loses their healthcare and acquires a gun. Even this best-case scenario is problematic. For Joker isn’t neutral about Fleck’s transformation. The suddenly bright colour palette of Act Three, the switch from low-lit to sunlit cinematography, Fleck’s jaunty stride down the stairs, the confidence with which he occupies the venue of his declaration, the dramatically lit low-angle hero-at-the-centre-of-the-world scenes of Fleck conducting chamber-music after his crimes – all collude to push the Joker to us as the only solution: against a world that doesn’t care, mass violence.
Fleck doesn’t fall into violence. He rises. That is a deeply problematic message.
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