Joker Is One Of The Greatest Films Of This Decade
When I saw Joker (2019) last week, I didn't know what to expect. I had no plans to see it until a co-worker texted me, asking if I wanted to go.
I said yes.
I went and saw the movie. I walked out, knowing that I made the right choice to watch.
Joker, in my eyes, is arguably one of the greatest films of this decade, and easily the best movie I've seen this year.
However, many critics from some of our nation's most prominent media organizations disagree. The verdict on the Joker was surprisingly split between the elites' and regular folks' opinions. At first, I was surprised, but now I understand why professional movie critics disagree.
I'm going to first breakdown their disagreement, then follow with what I viewed as the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. Last, I'll give my rating and come concluding thoughts.
Before I get down into that, there's a significant concern I want to address. Many media outlets were cautioning that this movie could inspire copycat killers to commit violent acts in public spaces with zero evidence to prove their claims.
Their cries of danger couldn't be any farther from the truth. The worst thing that happened was that someone called in a threat at the movie theater close by my place.
It turned out to be a hoax. (Still, it was the right call on the movie theater to shut down for that day as a precaution.)
Other than that, there have been no reported incidents at any movie theater showing Joker across the country.
These media outlets have been reckless and irresponsible with their words over a movie. It's sad and disappointing. If they were so concerned about violent perpetrators drawing inspiration from this movie, why do they always blast the name of the killer in mass shooting more than the victims in their coverage of such tragic incidents? It's been proven that giving publicity to these mass shooters inspires more people, yet they never change their methods of coverage.
From The New York Times:
Police find abundant evidence that shooters have studied previous crimes, often mimicking gestures or killing tactics, as if in homage to previous killers. This is true both of younger shooters who mow down unarmed people in schools, or at random; and of older men who execute innocents in the name of an ideology — be it opposition to immigration, white supremacy, radical Islam or another extreme belief.
I digress. While we wait for an explanation from these media folks claiming to look out for us, let's get into the meat of their critiques against Joker.
The Mainstream Criticism
Most mainstream articles I've seen reviewing Joker have been extremely critical of the movie as a whole. The most frequent critiques are as follows: the film has no point, it's portraying nothing but pointless violence, it portrays Arthur Fleck as a "hero," the movie didn't take inspiration from the comics, etc.
None of these critiques are meaningful.
The movie has a point - although not stated explicitly. The major theme of the movie is getting us to look at how our society plays a role in producing such an individual as Joker. The film displays the hostile, inhumane social conditions that motivate someone like Fleck (which is no justification for ever committing a crime) to act violently against others.
The violence in the movie isn't pointless - it serves a useful purpose in getting us to question the motivations of Joker. Joker doesn't go on a rampage at any point in the movie. If you were paying attention, you would notice that the only people Joker kills were the ones who physically, mentally, or emotionally harmed him. (One could argue that for someone as damaged as he is, he still has somewhat of a functioning moral compass.) Even more importantly, a hidden paradox that most people didn't pick up on is that both the rich and the poor showed great hostility to Fleck and that he was vengeful against both. (This is a reflection of how society degrades people's conduct towards one another, regardless of their class, which is something Joker explicitly says in the penultimate scene of the movie!) The most considerable evidence for Joker's restraint for violence is when he allows the dwarf to leave unharmed, as the dwarf was one of the few people who was genuinely nice to him.
Hell, he even explicitly states that he feels good about the murders he's committed because people finally notice him. There is a point, a rationale to his violence, even though it may go against our moral codes (which it absolutely should). Joker's heinous acts and reasoning behind them remind me of a famous quote from Martin Luther King, "a riot the language of the unheard."
The movie never portrays Arthur Fleck as a hero. To claim that, you either a) watched a totally different movie, b) upset that some traditional form of justice (i.e. punishment as doled by a court of law) wasn't imposed on him, c) didn't understand the ending, or d) were waiting for Batman to swoop in and save the day (which was never going to happen given Bruce Wayne was a young child during this movie).
The ending shows Joker standing on top of the cop car being cheered on by the anarchic crowd. Gotham is burning and engulfed in chaos.
That is not the work of a hero. Those are the deeds of a villain.
Another silly critique is that the movie didn't pay homage or stick close to the comics that have come to define Joker. If these people read the comic books or paid attention to the director's development of Joker, they would realize that Joker's profession in the movie, a struggling comic, is straight from Alan Moore's comic on the Joker, The Killing Joke (1978). Many comic book fans consider Moore's take on the Joker as one of the definitive works on our beloved villain.
From the Los Angeles Times (emphasis mine):
As the Joker says of his own history in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland‘s 1988 graphic novel “The Killing Joke” — a key inspiration for the “Joker” screenplay that depicted the character as a failed comedian — “I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
The most intellectually bankrupt critique is that this movie is here to help vindicate or implicitly justify mediocre, white men, or incels, to be violent towards others. First of all, race isn't one of the main themes of the movie. Nothing Joker did was because he was some frail, skinny, socially inept white guy. Two, there's no glorification of his violence at all. People are mistaking the riots as legitimizing his efforts. Here's the funny thing: he explicitly states that he doesn't care for the politics of the movement his actions started! This was never about fighting the "system" for him, it was more about the development of his unique identity as Joker and being recognized for that.
The mainstream criticism, for the most part, is extremely shallow and lacking any valid analysis of the movie's plot and the narrative vehicles used to tell the story.
Now, it's my turn to (briefly) break down what the movie did and did not do well.
I found the movie to be well-paced, with the care in the filming shown in a few key scenes to capture Arthur Fleck's descent into the abyss. One of the most moving scenes in the movie is near the beginning, where Arthur is sitting on the bus coming back from his therapy session to head home. He and a young African American boy make eye contact and begin to interact. Fleck plays some form of peekaboo with the child, covering his face and revealing it again to display different exaggerated emotions.
This is a healthy interaction between two human beings. Sadly, it's one of the few genuine interactions Fleck has with the world from this point on in the movie.
The child's mother turns around and aggressively chides Fleck, telling him to leave her son alone. Joker is at a loss for words and was trying to explain how the two were having fun, but the mother doesn't want to hear it. She is severely mistrustful of Fleck's honest intentions (and as a mother in a gritty, lawless city like Gotham, one cannot blame her).
It's at this point that Fleck begins to laugh uncontrollably due to an undiagnosed mental condition. He hands the mother a card as an attempt to explain that he isn't laughing on purpose, but its a result of his neurological affliction he suffers from randomly. The mother looks at him and turns away in disgust like he's some freak for suffering from a problem he has zero control over.
The child, following his mother's lead, turns away from Fleck too. This scene was easily one of the most emotionally painful interactions I've seen on the big screen. There was a part of me wanted to cry because here is a guy, before he becomes a monster, trying to make a genuine connection with another human being.
And that connection is denied.
That's when I knew that Fleck's transformation into Joker would be based on his disconnection from society, rather than any voluntary acts he commits preemptively against others.
The movie does an outstanding job of giving context to each disconnect that Fleck has from society, and shows the immediate impact of him becoming more detached from reality as a result. He loses his job as a clown after accidentally revealing a gun (that one of his colleagues gave him for protection) during a performance for children in a hospital. As he's leaving, he scratches out the words "forget to" on the poster in the hallway leading to the changing room that initially said, "Don't forget to smile."
You "don't smile" after losing your job. For most men in America and Western society as a whole, a job brings a sense of identity and meaning. It gives purpose to your existence. Fleck losing his job was another way that he was disconnecting from society. There's even a part of the movie where he raises the question of whether he exists after his killing of the three Wayne Enterprise businessmen on the training. He concludes that he does because he has taken life from others.
The dialogue between him and his assigned social worker shows the impact of Gotham's public policy as funding for mental health services are cut. My brain was firing during this portion of the dialogue between the two, as the social worker states in a matter-of-fact tone that they would not be seeing each other again due to a lack of funding. Fleck goes on to ask, where will he get his medicine to manage his condition?
The social worker has no idea. She says this (paraphrasing here), "Listen, Arthur, they don't give a shit about people like you. And they don't give a shit about people like me either."
Boom, he disconnects from society once again. This man has lost his job and now he's lost the only person who is obligated by the state to talk to him about his issues. He has no healthy outlet to express himself, except through his dancing that he does alone in his room or in front of others before an important event. At least he has family, right?
Wrong. It gets even worse with Fleck's family. The movie does a great job of setting up the idea that Fleck may be the illegitimate child of Thomas Wayne, and thus by extension, Bruce Wayne's older brother. It's a tantalizing thought for any longtime fan of the Batman series. But that is not to be the case. The film reveals that Fleck's mother, Penny, is severely mentally ill, and was a negligent mother that allowed Fleck to be beaten by one of her boyfriends by the time. That abuse played a role in him developing his uncontrollable laugh.
This was an incredibly twisted part of the movie because, in the earlier scenes, you saw how much Fleck loved his mother. He would do anything for her - cut her food into little pieces so it's easier for her to bite and digest, bathe her, dance with her during her favorite shows, and so much more. His mother was originally his only natural light in the world.
It turns out, she was one of the main reasons for his darkness. Now, he never had anything close to a relationship with his supposed "father" or any father figure at all in his life, leaving him utterly dependent on his mother for emotional support. (Which is ironic as his mother was the one who least believed in his ability to become a comic! Hilarious!)
He ends up killing his mom in the hospital by smothering her with a pillow. Another disconnection from society should be noted here, as the family is one of the main ways to interact with the surrounding community at large. Fleck has no job. No mental health services. No family. What else will he lose?
His love interest, Sophie Dumond, the single mother living on the same floor as Fleck in their decrepit apartment building, is the one any only example of his (misguided) attempt to form a connection with another human being. Beyond the initial creepy way he interacts with Dumond, the two begin to have feelings for one another and start dating. She's present at his comedy shows and is there for him when his mother is fighting for her life in the hospital. She is honestly the only tangible connection Fleck has in his life right now.
If only reality weren't so cruel. A masterfully depicted scene carefully shatters the illusion - Fleck was hallucinating the whole time. The relationship between the two was never real. It's important to note this because this is his mind playing tricks on him. His mind is attempting to make up for the absence of connection he's suffering from by crafting a narrative in his head that Dumond actually likes him for who he is.
Instead, she asks him only if he needs her to call his mother again for wandering into the wrong room.
I'm not even sure if Fleck is ever aware of the deception his mind has played on him during the film. That's how deep into the dark mental abyss he's fallen into, and there is absolutely nothing that will get him out.
It's sad because I think during the movie, there was one clear chance for his redemption. After he steals the files of his mother's stay in Arkham Asylum, he reads them in an empty stairwell by himself. As he learns the heartbreaking truth about his mother and what happened to him as a child, he begins to laugh uncontrollably again.
Only this time, you can hear the cry in his laughter. He is in a tremendous amount of emotional pain. This is Fleck as his most vulnerable, and there's no one there to comfort him.
At this point, he realizes that he is completely and utterly alone in society. He has no job — no mental health services. No family. No loving relationship.
The disconnect is complete, and now we begin to see Fleck turn into the Joker.
The movie did a great job of breaking down Fleck and building up Joker by highlighting how austere societal conditions and broken relationships with others left him completely unmoored.
The only meaning he could find in life was not through love but violence.
You may ask, "Ok, so he's disconnected from society, so what? Are these conditions depicted in the movie even true in real life?"
Yes, yes they are. Ever heard of the phrase "depths of despair?" It's a phrase coined by Angus Deaton and Anne Case, two Princeton economics who came out with a groundbreaking study showing the white, working-class males dying at high rates in today's society. These guys are unemployed, never married or divorced, and have few family connections. Case's and Deaton's study is clear evidence that these being disconnected from society can have tangible negative effects on your health.
"Ok, but what about the gutting of social services in the movie? It's not like that ever happened!"
Yes, yes it did. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan repealed former President Jimmy Carter's Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. This resulted in federally funded facilities shutting down, pushing mentally ill patients and others in need of help either back on the streets, or burdening state mental health facilities that were already overwhelmed.
These factors may not result in someone killing others, but they certainly diminish one's quality of life and can easily lead to someone ending theirs in the face of unbearable hopelessness and despair.
The movie does a fantastic job of depicting Fleck's disconnection from society in the various spheres of his life. However, it fails to explicitly show how these disconnections relate to one another and make any meaningful commentary on the structural conditions within society that produce a person like him. The best example of this main shortcoming of the film is in the penultimate act, where Fleck is finally on the Murray Franklin Show. Franklin, the show's host, grills Fleck on the morality of his murders. Fleck struggles to come up with any meaningful or coherent answers to why he committed the crimes that he did.
There are two ways of looking at Joker's inability to do so. One, he doesn't care, as he states multiple times throughout the film that he has no ideology (so the riots concerning the inequality in the city do not concern him in the slightest). His benefit for the killing was that people noticed him and made him feel that he existed. Or two, that Joker is an unreliable narrator whose character is implicitly designed not to be able to give coherent answers on how his actions are caused and are a reflection of the society as a whole.
I was firmly in the first camp after watching the film. However, after giving it several days to marinate in my mind, and coming across this particular article, I am in the second camp now.
If you study the behavior of Joker throughout the film, it's clear that he only has a tenuous grasp on reality, and that is mostly dependent on the few connections he has with others. Fleck doesn't develop autonomy over himself until he is completely disconnected from reality and starts painting his face to become the Joker. I think if Joker had suddenly become a thoughtful, calculating villain by giving clear and rational answers to Franklin's questions, it would have broken our immersion of Joker as a character. That proposed level of thinking is completely incongruous to his character development up to that point.
His final joke to Franklin before brutally slaying him onset is the following:
"What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?
I'LL TELL YOU WHAT YOU GET!!! YOU GET WHAT YOU FUCKING DESERVE!!!"
Bang. Joker shoots Franklin point-blank in the head, and then another time in the chest for good measure.
If that isn't a Killing Joke (get it?), I don't know what is. That statement on its own isn't a sufficient explanation at the slightest, and when I first heard in him say those lines, I was like, "This isn't funny!"
I feel like if Joker would have triumphantly (and ironically) delivered a funny line at the end, that would have been the perfect climax to his transformation into who he is now. Unfortunately, the dialogue in these scenes I found lacking and muddied a stellar performance up to that point.
My Final Review
Joker deserves a 9/10. Fleck's character development was masterfully done, the depiction of the structural adverse social conditions was vivid and bright for everyone to see how that influenced Fleck's disconnection from society as a whole.
-1 star for the absence of quality and coherent social commentary on how these structural conditions are connected. The film was ironically at its best when it didn't try to state the social, economic, and political conditions explicitly. I would call Joker an unconscious social commentary movie on the state of our society.
But maybe the film was never designed to provide that conscious commentary in the first place. As Josh Brolin eloquently states,
"We have a habit of hating and ostracizing and dividing and sweeping our problems under the rug. Joker, is simply lifting the rug and looking underneath it. Nothing more. Nothing less."
That's all, folks!
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