“What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a system that treats him like trash?”
The Joker posits this question at the end of his cinematic origin story, tidily summarizing the film’s narrative for both his literal and figurative audience. I’d say these are spoilers, but Joker’s destination is pre-ordained by the character’s iconic status in pop culture. We all know The Joker is a bad guy, and Joker aims to tell us why. So the meat of this movie is really the stuff in the middle. Because no one’s just born this way, right?
There’s a reason to be skeptical about the concept of this movie, particularly a dark, gritty, true-to-life, awards-contender version of it. Comics have proved in multiple iterations of The Joker’s origin that it’s best kept as multiple choice. There’s a fear in his ambiguity. It’s a fear the decades-old character invokes in an even more relevant way now. What drives seemingly average men to the brink of mass murder? A bad day? A bad life?
I went into Joker willing to write off concerns about the premise as well as the mixed early TIFF review from my colleague, Kay-B. Because cynicism aside, Joker has a unique opportunity to delve into that question in a new, timely way. And in a few aspects it does deliver. We get a visually dazzling film with a beautiful score and gut-wrenchingly emotional and physical performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character. It’s also well-crafted by director Todd Phillips, who has an eye for pacing and tension. But underneath the window dressing and the pretense of the two big questions — WHO and WHY — Joker has no answers. Instead it borrows wholesale from old films like The King of Comedy and trades in long-debunked, tired tropes about the violence of a mentally ill patient who’s been off his meds too long.
We spend about half of Joker getting to know down-on-his-luck Arthur Fleck, that self-described mentally ill loner trapped in a system that treats him like trash. Fleck dotes on his aging mother, works hard to make kids laugh by dressing up like a clown, and struggles with even basic social interactions due to a neurological condition known as Pseudobulbar affect, which makes him burst out into uncontrollable laughter at the most inopportune of times. We’re told he’s on seven medications, although we’re not given any specific diagnosis beyond that general “mentally ill” descriptor. All we know is that the worst part about having a mental illness, as Fleck writes in his journal, is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.
So that’s Fleck. And by all accounts, he’s an average guy just struggling to get by. Which brings us to the second half of Joker’s recipe for a killer: the system that treats him like trash. The streets are filled with rats, the wealthy are thriving while the poor are suffering, and it’s getting crazier out there every day. Eventually enough is enough, and Fleck gets stepped on too many times. In an act of self-defense that turns murderous, Fleck kills some preppy Wall Street types who are drunkenly harassing a fellow passenger on a subway car before turning with violence on Fleck too. Stories emerge of the killer clown who came for the rich, and the poor of Fleck’s home hold this killer clown up as a symbol. They start to dress like him, stage protests, and terrorize the city.
The idea of “the system” that tears the social fabric of Gotham and Fleck’s life apart is vague and mostly described as economic disparity, likely because it’s a simple target. Whether you’re left-wing, right-wing, or apolitical, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the lofty 1 percent controlling the rest of the country. It’s an easy way out for a film that wants to say something about “the system” but isn’t really interested in taking any real stance at all other than “it’s bad.” Which part? And for whom? Director and co-writer Phillips won’t say, as he opts not to take inspiration from actual events of civil unrest, which are often triggered by acts of injustice perpetrated against a community. Instead “the system” pushes Gotham’s poor to the brink when they decide to riot in celebration of the murder of some random rich guys. Not in protest or in rage at the murders, of which they approve, but as a sort of violent, happy mayhem at large. Because society, man.
I think there’s a knee-jerk pre-reaction to this film that feels political: that the left will hate it for what it has to say, specifically. I felt the opposite. It had almost nothing to say at all. The depiction of mental illness is problematic, not because it’s intentionally making a controversial point, but because it’s lazy and uninformed, like the rest of the movie. And lazy would be fine for an entertaining film that simply embraced The Joker’s chaotic evil essence and let it prevail. In fact, the final 20 minutes or so of the movie are actually really good, as Phoenix finally settles down into a pitch-perfect portrayal of the character we’ve all been waiting for. But we waste 90 minutes getting there, extorted by a movie that really wants its audience to feel sympathy for a relatable man and the bad things that happen to him, mostly produced by circumstances beyond his control, while also expecting that audience to buy into his flimsy transformation into a murderous agent of chaos. It’s a tough sell from the start, to be sure, and the script doesn’t have the goods to deliver, which lets down the technical feats and perfections built around it.
But hey. You’ve always been dying to know why The Joker laughs, and now you’ve finally got your answer, right? No? Oh. Me neither.