Directed and Co-Written by Todd Phillips
There’s a lot that’s been said about “Joker,” much before it opened – including opinions that seemed formed before many had seen the film. It’s a harder film than most to describe and discuss, especially in terms of the conflicting claims associated with the film, without detailing a significant number of plot details, so…
BEWARE SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!
“Joker” is essentially an origin story for the character we know from the Batman stories and, to a lesser extent, for Batman also. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a down on his luck nobody – a guy who works for a clown agency, putting on a costume to entertain kids one day or spin a going out of business sign the next. He’s not a happy guy but he’s also not a bad or evil guy. We know he’s had some mental health issues, but he’s largely coping with them, seeing a disinterested doctor once a week, taking his medications, and eking out a meager living for himself and his homebound mother (Frances Conroy), for whom he’s the primary (only) caregiver.
He dreams of being a standup comedian and, when he’s not working, he writes ideas for what he considers to be jokes in a worn notebook he cherishes. However out of reach it might be, he has a dream and he pictures himself on his favorite late night talk show, as a guest of host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). But he also has a strange nervous condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he’s anxious, which tends to unnerve those around him – not the greatest attribute for somebody who hopes to try his luck at an open mic night.
It’s not a great life, certainly not the life he dreams of, but it’s somewhat sustainable as long as all the details remain in place, with a semblance of balance and control. And the then the constituent parts start to unravel. Mental health funding is cut, he can’t see his doctor anymore, he no longer has access to his meds, he loses trust in the one stable person in his life, and after a mugging at work one of his coworkers gives him a gun. It’s the perfect storm of neglect and constructive interference, with all things either feeding or enabling his delusions.
“Joker” isn’t a consideration of mental illness on a universal scale, it’s a case study of one man’s maelstrom descent into darkness when all of his lifelines are taken away. But it comes at a time when mental health issues are often conflated with easy access to firearms and America’s propensity towards gun violence. It isn’t telling us that every individual with a diagnosis is a threat but it is reminding us that there are some people who need help and we shouldn’t be entirely surprised if they unravel when we deny them access to such help.
It also comes at a time when societal unrest and divisions related to wealth and opportunity are peaking, with an increase in violence at events such as political rallies. “Joker” isn’t a manifesto or call to arms for civil unrest, but it is pointing out that if we don’t help those that need help, and if we allow such divisions to widen, there will likely be those for whom civil unrest seems a valid option. And if you find a crowd of people who want to burn society to the ground, the guy holding the match is likely to appear heroic – whether or not he’s got a plan or just happens to be there.
If it’s a manifesto for anything, it’s for a strong social safety net and compassion. And a reminder that there are always those ready to follow delusion with delusion – as if we needed to be reminded of that.
Joaquin Phoenix is excellent in his portrayal of disaffection and disassociation – his Arthur Fleck is angry and out of control – but he’s also understandable and sympathetic. We know why he’s that way and we’ve had the opportunity to see it coming in a way that we don’t have when the latest news headlines describe similar events. And DeNiro is well cast as a participant and observer in Arthur’s downward spiral – as if Murray Franklin is somehow interacting with DeNiro’s own earlier Travis Bickle from 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” with “Joker” existing closer to that timeline than ours. And the writing team of Todd Phillips (“Starsky and Hutch,” “The Hangover Part II/Part III”), who doesn’t generally get this dark, and the often grittier Scott Silver (“The Fighter,” “Johns”) seems well balanced.
If there’s a danger here, it’s not so much that “Joker” will somehow convince an otherwise stable person into instability, it’s that it might conceivably trigger an already unstable person into thinking there’s a call to action here that isn’t actually in the film. Similarly, those in the film who perceive events as a rallying call are misreading the actions of one misunderstood and highly troubled man.
The other danger is simply that people who associate this film with the Batman tales they’ve grown up with, may walk into a film that isn’t what they wanted or expected, or with kids who are too young to understand or appreciate the subject matter. This is darker than the Bat Cave in a blackout. This is a depiction of one man’s descent into delusion and violence and it’s not for the faint hearted or immature. And it may not be for at least some of those in need of the same kind of care and consideration as Arthur.
But for the right audience, this is brilliant storytelling, character development, and the kind of cinematic event that Martin Scorsese might enjoy (or recognize), even if he might not expect to.