Todd Phillips’ Joker is shaping up to be the most controversial film of the year, if not the decade. A brutally dark, 70s-style art-house film that turns the comic book genre on its head, it has been surprisingly popular with moviegoers and surprisingly unpopular with critics, garnering 90% and 69% in its respective Rotten Tomatoes scores. Critics’ concerns seem to boil down to two major themes: its apparent justification of violence and the political subtexts attached to that. And be warned: the film is violent, and Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness is very disturbing indeed—so much so that I can’t say I recommend it. At the very least, only adults should be seeing it, and even then, those of faint heart or unsound mind should steer clear. But for those who have already seen it (or who will see it no matter what anyone says), I hope it’s clear that Joker really makes us feel the hollow horror of that violence; and as Jonathan Pageau has pointed out, it actively resists the usual political narratives. It’s an emotionally complex and challenging film, and the ground it stands on is lower, broader, and far more disquieting.
Joker was filmed in New York City, and Gotham is very much modeled after 1970s Manhattan. Its skies are blocked by porn theater marquees, its streets are littered with trash, and its subways are covered in graffiti. But Gotham, we quickly see, is not only seedy, but struggling. A massive garbage strike, cuts to social services, and other economic upheavals deepen the atomization and unrest, even as the rich get richer—a theme that is double underscored when a crowd of well-dressed elites is treated to a private screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
In the middle of Gotham—or better, underneath it—we find Arthur Fleck. An invisible middle-aged man who ekes out a living as a clown-for-hire and lives with his troubled mother, Arthur dreams of being a stand-up comedian and appearing on the talk show of his hero, Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro). But he has a brain condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he is nervous, and takes seven different medications to battle his deepening mental illness. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks his therapist. “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.” We watch him trudge home down the city streets night after night—anguished, ignored, and alone. There’s a familiar sadness that hangs over our introduction to both this city and this man; Arthur sheds a tear in the opening scene, and it’s a tear that never really goes away. Even his laughs are cries.
But things only go downhill for Arthur from there. A random attack by a group of teenagers—another truly sad moment—leads to a gun being placed in his hands, trouble at work, and his eventual firing; a comedy routine in a local club goes terribly and is even mocked by his television hero; the government program providing his medication is slashed; and his mother has a stroke and is hospitalized. But things really begin to unravel when Arthur learns that two aspects of his life are not what he thought they were. The truth of his past is left ambiguous (although I think the interpretation that reflects the moral and financial corruption of Gotham is the more plausible one), but this much is clear: he was unwanted as a baby and physically abused as a child.
Throughout all of this, Arthur begins to transform into the Joker—not all at once, but gradually. His first killings occur in a defensive mode, and even after that he tries to maintain a normal life. But the buffetings continue, and he begins to see his whole life as an absurd joke. Eventually, he arrives at the conclusion of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit: “No pleasure but meanness.” Anti-establishment protesters start wearing clown masks and hold up Arthur as their hero. But he doesn’t identify with them. “I don’t believe in any of that,” he says. “I don’t believe in anything.”
Phillips’ sympathetic portrayal of Arthur raises valid concerns about the justification, or even celebration, of the violence that follows. But as Phillips himself has said, “Arthur’s actions in this movie are abhorrent by the end. You’re not supposed to be rooting for him.” His unraveling is engineered more like a psychological horror than an action or thriller, and the violence is not your typical Hollywood violence; it is brutally real, brimming with anguish, and swallowed up by madness. One of Arthur’s more sudden and brutal attacks—a scene that really looks and feels like the eruption of something hellish, as evil seizes the howling void where a tenuous grip on life used to be—is especially unsettling. Phillips follows this awful moment with Arthur dancing triumphantly down a flight of stairs to rock music—but the effect is one of being pulled down into the flattened madness of a lost soul. Arthur has freely—and wrongly—embraced the path of evil in response to his suffering, and is hurtling himself headlong into spiritual destruction. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter Arthur’s world . . .”
The point is two-fold: Arthur has chosen to become a monster . . . but monsters are not simply born; they are also molded. The evils of Gotham cascade down through generations and cut across the political spectrum. The city is plagued by familial and sexual chaos: fatherlessness, abandonment, pornography, abuse, and loneliness. But it’s also plagued by social and financial chaos: greed, power, corruption, poverty, and hunger. People are treated as means, and means as ends—and the weakest and most hidden members of Gotham’s “throwaway culture” are the ones who absorb its effects the most. But the malady is ultimately a moral and spiritual one; government programs can’t finally fix it, and an overreliance on entertainment and technology seems to worsen it.
Both the setting and the themes of Joker have drawn comparisons to films like Taxi Driver, Network, and The King of Comedy. But it brought to my mind a different work from the 1970s—namely, Walker Percy’s novel Lancelot. Warner Brothers describes Joker as a “cautionary tale”; Percy used the same exact phrase to define his story. Lancelot also centers on a madman who lashes out at the world with murderous vengeance, and the title character is also driven by a disgust with the degradation and hollowness of the world around him. Even the names of both protagonists hearken to the Knights of the Round Table; and while their quests differ—Lancelot breaks through profligacy to forge a new honor code, Arthur breaks out of invisibility to forge no code at all—they both revolve around a quest for evil.
At the end of Percy’s novel, Lancelot says to his visitor in the institution, a priest who is silent most of the story: “It will be your way or it will be my way. All we can agree on is that it will not be their way. Out there.” He asks the priest if he has anything to say, and the priest’s response is the final word of the book: “Yes.” A small beam of light—like Alyosha’s kiss in The Brothers Karamazov—breaks through the darkness.
Is there any such light in Joker? I think we see it in two places: in the steely eyes of the young Bruce Wayne, and in a small painting of the Blessed Mother and the child Jesus hanging in Penny’s apartment. With these two passing images, we see glimpses of a higher life—one of self-discipline and virtue, of faith and compassion. Joker is the story of a man who desperately needed the healing balm of this life, but never received it; it was nowhere to be found in Gotham, in its people, or in his mind. And it offers us a vivid and frightening portrait of the living nightmares that can—and do—follow.