Don’t cry. Just laugh.
The scariest thing to admit is that we have monsters living inside of ourselves. Part of the reason why Joker has amassed as much controversy as it has is because people don’t want to admit that at some level, they sympathize with a madman and a serial killer. But the thing that some people need to remember is that before they became murderers, killers, and psychopaths, these monsters were people just like you and me, and they were hurt in very profound and personal ways that would drive anyone towards insanity. Any person, through the right circumstances, can be capable of cruelty. It’s just a matter of where and how you apply the pressure.
In Joker, writer-director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) plunges headfirst into this dark and depressing place through a gritty imagining of the origin story behind Batman’s greatest enemy. Before he became the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) was a clown, an aspiring comedian, and a son to a loving mother whom he lives with and takes care of. Arthur’s life is by no means a happy one. He regularly has to fend off attacks from criminals who try to intimidate him in the streets, he has chronic depression and several self-esteem issues, and he struggles with a neurological condition that forces him to laugh whenever he’s anxious.
But even though Arthur doesn’t have a fulfilled life, he does have a normal one for the most part. That is, until something starts to unravel inside of his splintered mind. He starts seeing people and things that aren’t actually there. He starts to become more impulsive, irrational, and erratic. And he begins to find humor in situations that would sicken and repulse any other human being. This mental and emotional decay keeps gnawing away at him until there is nothing left of Arthur Fleck. All that’s left is the Joker.
Before this movie’s release, one commentator remarked that in 1989, you created the Joker by throwing him into a vat of acid. In 2019, you created the Joker by throwing him into society. That is essentially how Todd Phillips approaches the character in this film. In fact, for more than half of the movie’s runtime, Phillips doesn’t even allude to the Joker persona or what he ends up meaning to the Batman mythos. For the most part, Joker is a social observation on mankind’s flaws and how they whittle away at our moral integrity. While I was watching, I was surprised to find that the movie doesn’t play as much like a comic book flick as it does a psychological tragedy. The fact that it just happens to feature a comic book character is just the icing on the cake.
I was reminded by another movie while watching Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness, and that was Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Both movies feel a lot like they are about the same person. Both feature mostly whole people who are going through serious trials and tribulations. Both characters are pieces of a broken world and are trying to make sense of it all. Both start going through a moral and mental decay that wears at the people they once were. And both start committing violent and deranged acts that fit in with their twisted senses of justification.
The movie is, in and of itself, a condemnation of the Joker’s villainy. It has to be, otherwise it threatens to embody the same evil that the Joker himself does. What’s fascinating is that the movie doesn’t just focus on the Joker, but rather all of the elements that help contribute to who he eventually becomes. The movie touches on several issues such as wealth inequality, mental health, infidelity, gun control, entertainment, anarchy, and so many other themes that you would least expect in a comic book movie like this. You wouldn’t think that these serious topics would fit into a movie about the Joker, yet they fit perfectly like pieces into a messy and chaotic puzzle. It’s very easy to simply write Joker off as psychotic and blame all of his cruelty on craziness. It’s much harder to take a deeper look at what turned Arthur Fleck into a murderer and address some of those contributors that had a hand in creating the Joker in the first place.
Since the movie is at its core a character observation, so much of the movie rests on Joaquin Phoenix’s scrawny shoulders as both Arthur Fleck and the Joker. He never buckles under the pressure. Not once. He plays both sides to the character in a beautiful and mesmerizing fashion, playing a meek and cowardly fellow in one beat and then a deranged and psychotic killer clown in another. He embodies the nuances of both characters perfectly and never breaks character in the movie’s 122-minute run time. If Joaquin isn’t at least nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars next year, the ceremony deserves to be boycotted.
You need to be warned that this is not a Batman movie by any means and is not meant for the regular superhero moviegoing public. This movie is equally inappropriate for any children younger than 18, as there is a lot of profanity, blood, gore, and disturbing images. Likewise, there’s also a larger conversation to be had about how movies like Joker humanizes deplorable human beings and gives insight to the horrible actions they carry out.
My argument is that these figures were already humanized through their situations and struggles – the movie’s challenge is showing us that without veering into preachiness or self-absorption. We already know that everything Joker does in the movie is reprehensible and wrong, just like we did for the Italian mobsters in The Godfather, or the gangsters in Goodfellas, or the hitmen in Pulp Fiction. The scary part is not caring when we cross that line – when we intentionally blur it or sometimes erase it altogether because we’ve lost any sense of moral integrity. In those moments, you can’t cry anymore because you’ve run out of tears to shed. All you can do is laugh.