Joker, jester, fool, prankster...the idea evokes the image of a clown, a silly ragamuffin who makes children laugh and prances around joyfully. Somewhere along the line, that idea became distorted. I don't know the history of how the idea of "clown" went from an amusing circus oddity to becoming the face of nightmares. How did we take guys with face paint and squeaky noses and turn them into demonic entities that haunt Stephen King novels and criminals who rejoice in the deaths of innocents? It's baffling...and yet, it makes for compelling characters.
DC Comics and Warner Bros. most recent collaboration, Todd Philips' "Joker" film, sees a Joker that isn't just defined by the term "member of Batman's rogues gallery." This isn't a mob boss plotting his next score; this isn't a supervillain murdering one of Batman's sidekicks; this isn't even a madman getting his jollies from attempting to blow up ferries or creating sheer panic for the heck of it. Because all of those things plant the Joker squarely in the "villain" column, and what Philips' movie provides for audiences is a character who can't quite be assigned a single value like that.
Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck doesn't start out "evil," certainly not in the sense we would define a character like the Joker. He's a man who suffers from at least one mental disorder and several ticks--including bursts of laughter at inappropriate moments triggered by extreme emotional swings, an issue based around a real-world condition--and the film goes to great lengths to show these illnesses and ticks don't make him "crazy." "Neurologically atypical" may be a better description of Arthur's personality, and while the movie shows the extreme prejudice against him as he fails to fit within other people's standards of "normal," it does so to make the viewer sympathize with his condition.
Right off the bat (man, that was not intentional), viewers are thrust into a world where things are just stacked against Arthur. Kids beat the snot out of him, he lives with a mother he needs to take care of, his boss won't listen to him when he claims to not have stolen some equipment, his social worker doesn't seem to pay his real issues any direct attention. But it isn't just "Arthur pitted against the environment." Even before the inciting incident that sends Arthur down the spiraling path that leads him to embrace the Joker entirely--the murder of three, young Wayne Corporation employees on a subway train--he exudes unhealthy behavioral options.
Now, I should say I don't comprehend "mental illness" as a subject all that well, but one thing I do understand is that various individuals suffering from some sort of disorder have the option to make choices that will benefit them; that's not to sugarcoat their situations or gloss over them by any means, but my limited experience has shown that individuals can fight. It's a struggle, it isn't easy, and the environment around them can be a huge factor in determining their situation, but I also know they have a very physical, emotional, and mental role to play as well. Saying that Arthur is a victim may be true, but saying that he lacks the mental faculties to make wiser choices is, in my opinion, false.
Still, I couldn't help but sympathize with the character, and part of that was watching the self-inflicted damage he caused. Going into the film, I knew or at least strongly guessed the trajectory (as, I'm assuming, did most viewers) Arthur's story would take. I imagined a film about a character I could sympathize with up until a certain point...and then, after that point, no longer feel as much sympathy for. For the first two-thirds of the movie, "Joker" enabled me to feel for Arthur's condition. The situations he finds himself in are brutal and, though not entirely vacant of his own decisions, are exacerbated by the world he's in. A neighbor who thinks his brand of humor is odd gives him the cold shoulder; a television host who sees a clip of one of Arthur's uncontrollable laughing fits makes fun of him; the jerks on the train beat him and push him over the edge.
Perhaps this is witnessed no better than in a scene where Arthur interacts with a young Bruce Wayne outside Wayne Manor. Separated by a gate, Arthur performs a few magic tricks and manipulates the boy's face into a smile. It's a surprisingly tender moment between two people who, much later in life, are destined to become grim enemies. This moment is shattered by Alfred, the Wayne's butler, who comes and shoos Arthur away. Admittedly, Alfred's reaction isn't a shocking one. If I saw an unkempt individual acting playful around a young child, I would automatically assume the worst. Alfred's behavior, though not surprising, is given a darker perception. All of a sudden, you're angry with the butler. Because you see the narrative through Arthur's lens (I can't think of a single scene where Arthur isn't the main focus), you view Alfred's reaction as cold and cruel when, in reality, he's just trying to protect Bruce from an unknown man with unknown intentions.
This makes the dichotomy between Arthur and every other character fascinating. Since it's Arthur's story, we see the world through his eyes, as he perceives people and places. In certain cases, this gives his actions and behaviors at least an illusion of innocence to them that may or may not occasionally be there. A later scene where Arthur approaches Thomas Wayne and confronts him about something may be seen as "going too far" in our eyes. But in Arthur's mind, the logic behind confronting Wayne is not nonsensical; he doesn't want to be mean or to hurt the man—he just wants to talk, he just wants answers to a question lingering in his brain. If we take this scene at its face value, Thomas Wayne is a jerk who flat out denies Arthur's inquisitiveness and fails to give him the assistance he wants.
If the movie treated Arthur as a villain, I would've hated him. If he spent the film leering past manor gates and confronting rich men in bathrooms and shooting people just because they made him mad, Arthur would be a very difficult character to sympathize with and, as an unfortunate result, would have become a cliché type of “crazy” villain we see so often in cinema. I think Arthur transcends that type of categorization. What we see isn’t just a man who is “evil” due to mental illness, we don’t see someone who sets himself up as an enemy of society or as someone who wishes to unbalance or overturn some type of societal construct or perceived injustice. We witness a man, caught in a whirlwind of unpredictable emotions and uncontrollable environmental effects, slowly lose himself as miserable situation follows miserable situation and poor choice follows poor choice. He isn’t a supervillain who wants to watch the world burn; he’s a man who either loses or destroys the options before him and, perceiving one possible avenue left, takes that path.
This all culminates in a scene where Arthur murders a former coworker. The scene in question is viscerally violent and disturbing; seeing the film with a friend, I stared at the corner of the movie screen while it lasted. From there, I felt a numbness in my gut as I wondered what Arthur would do next. In comparison, the film’s finale is tame, but that singular scene—intense not only for its depiction of violence, but for the build-up and mounting tension until the release of rage—became a sad sticking point in my brain. As I have told several people, it’s not a scene I need to re-watch if and most likely when I see “Joker” again.
There are, in my mind, two distinct forms of tension movies tend to create. First, there’s the tension of “something bad is about to happen.” You see it in the horror movie where the teenager walks into the dark basement without a flashlight, where you keep your hand over your mouth because you know something sinister, something vile is going to jump out and grab him or her. This first form of dark tension is what the aforementioned murder scene caused for me. I sat there, the emotional strain already tugging at my chest even before the event happened because I knew nothing good was going to come from it.
The second form of tension is more akin to understanding something important is going to happen, but not knowing what exactly it will be, whether for good or for ill. “Joker” provides at least one fantastically constructed moment of that type of tension. A scene where he confronts a female tenant he’s developed an attraction toward and seemingly dated takes a turn when she doesn’t seem to recognize him. With a few cuts, the film reveals to the audience her and Arthur’s entire “relationship” has been in his head all along, purely imaginary. The reveal is subtle, wordless, and terrifying, and it alters your perception of what has gone on before. This twist not only changed how I viewed Arthur’s relationship with this tenant but also his state of mind.
This scene is also the best example of what makes a film like “Joker” compelling: the viewer’s ability to wrestle with it. My emotions crisscrossed themselves while I watched. Initial sympathy and ability to perhaps see past some of Arthur’s dark streak gave way to revulsion and emotional numbness. Even as I write this, I continue to wrestle with the idea of Arthur’s spiral into darkness and why exactly it occurred—where is the blame divided between his actions, his illness, and society?—and I think it’s because I’m looking for a straightforward answer that isn’t there. Regrettably, one of the film’s final scenes does see Arthur attempt to lay the blame for all that’s happened more firmly on the shoulders of men like Thomas Wayne. The film tries to inject a larger message about society here, but it feels rather squeezed in. Nevertheless, it’s still another layer to an already complex film.
If you’re looking for a film where you can eat your popcorn while good guys punch bad guys and the lines between heroism and villainy are dug deeply into the dirt, this won’t be your kind of movie. But if you want a character study about a human being who, like all of us, faces challenges with work, with family, with society, and perhaps hardest of all, with the demons inside us that drive us towards the darker, selfish options and the lie that hope doesn’t exist…you may appreciate this. At least, you may appreciate the struggle.
I’m not saying we’re like the Joker. I’m saying we’re all human, with lives to work out and emotions to process, and Arthur’s story is one that takes a turn for the worst. Life isn’t always happy, life doesn’t always end well, and as deflating a notion as that may be, to see it represented on screen makes for a challenging narrative. “Joker” isn’t a happy film, though it’s one which graces a man with mental illness a well-rounded story. Though the movie may be flawed, much like its central focus, it allows you to grapple with your own emotions as Arthur struggles with his. It’s not like I’ll be watching dark movies from here on out, but to have a few hours of raw honesty injected into my bloodstream that leaves me thinking about life, about illness, about coping with a dark world and, especially, how I can navigate that world better than Arthur feels forced to…it made for a unique filmgoing experience I look forward to replicating and continuing to contend with.