(Spoiler Alert- I do talk about a good amount of the plot.)
First of all, is this a fantasy movie? Well, it takes place in a mythical place, Gotham City and I suppose it exists in the “DC Universe” which includes Superman and other superheroes so I guess that can’t be the real world so let’s say it’s fantasy.
And this is nominally the origin story for Batman’s nemesis the Joker. But although Bruce Wayne makes a cameo appearance and his father is a somewhat important character it doesn’t feel like this is a comic book story.
I guess it’s a story about how you can be the wrong man, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The time and place are Gotham City (think New York City in everything but name) around, approximately, the mid-nineteen-eighties, a time when the bull market on Wall Street contrasted with the crime and poverty within much of the city. The contrast was between the opulence of the elite and the graffiti and garbage laden streets of the poorer areas. Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to make people smile, he’s a self-professed clown. But he’s also a mentally unstable man who struggles to make a living in the cruel time and place that surrounds him.
Arthur lives with his invalid mother in a tiny apartment in a ramshackle building somewhere in Gotham City. He is on seven different medications for his mental problems which in addition to clinical depression includes an uncontrollable urge to laugh at the most inappropriate times.
We see him trying to earn a living as a clown. He is sent out by an agency to perform whatever entertainment or advertising assignments a clown could be used for. At a store that is going out of business, he dances around on the sidewalk with a twirling sign that announces that everything must go at their sale. A gang of teenagers rip the sign out of his hands and run away into traffic. Arthur chases them in his clown costume and after an exhausting chase is ambushed in an alley by the gang and brutally beaten down.
The movie is a downward spiral with Arthur experiencing cruelty and disappointment from every direction, strangers, his social worker, his neighbors, his employer and fellow employees and even his mother. The only relief he ever finds in the movie are either delusions that his mind manufactures or the elation he feels when he finally exacts revenge with a gun.
Once Arthur is completely defeated in his hope for a normal life, he formulates the idea that all his pain is not a tragedy but actually a comedy and his mission is to spread the joke to everyone he meets. He becomes the Joker and exults in his new found purpose in life, to extract revenge on everyone he comes in contact with. After that the movie is a kinetic chase to see if Arthur can reach the maximum audience for his grim comedy before the police catch up to him. Eventually the alienated masses in Gotham City embrace his chaotic violence and burn the city down in a spasm of violence.
This is an endlessly bleak film. There is absolutely no positive message that can be taken from it. The negative message that might have a cautionary aspect is not to push desperate people all the way to the wall, because they may still have teeth.
I was speaking to some folks in my circle of acquaintances about the Joker movie. One of them is one of the Deplorables and he was very enthusiastic about the movie. He felt that the movie reflected the way the world treats people today. For instance, the neglected condition of Arthur Fleck and the rundown condition of the city he lived in was emblematic of how the elites treat the everyday folk.
He keyed into the scene where Arthur manages to meet up with Thomas Wayne. Arthur’s mother had worked for Wayne and Arthur wants to talk to the great man. He goes to the gate outside Wayne Manor and using some magic props amuses young Bruce Wayne who happens to be nearby. Alfred the butler intervenes and Arthur runs away. In the next scene Arthur sneaks into a private showing of a Charlie Chaplin movie at a palatial theater that Thomas Wayne and the rest of the elite of Gotham City are privately viewing.
Arthur enters as the show is in progress. There they were, the elite, in their tuxedos and gowns without a care in the world while outside the riff raff were protesting the neglect and rot that had descended on the city. Arthur is charmed and exhilarated by the opulence and happiness he sees and expects that Thomas Wayne will welcome him with open arms. Instead he is rejected by Wayne and told that his connection to the Wayne family is a delusion. And just for the sake of irony vis-à-vis the Batman back story Thomas Wayne punches Arthur in the face and says that he will kill Arthur if he ever comes near his son Bruce again.
Without a doubt one of the themes of the movie is that the rich have abandoned their poor neighbors. And in fact, the three men that push Arthur over the edge into homicide are rich young stockbrokers who feel no compunction about attacking a seemingly harmless man on a subway train. But it should be remembered that Arthur is also attacked by some street hoodlums who obviously aren’t any kind of an affluent group. Their underprivileged status hasn’t given them any sympathy for Arthur when they beat him savagely when he attempts to retrieve his stolen property from them.
My friend feels that the Joker represents a recipe for what is ahead as the downtrodden rise up and eat the rich. Maybe he’s right. Maybe there’s no other way but somehow that doesn’t feel like victory to me. If the best outcome possible is burning the world down to the ground then excuse me if I’m not particularly enthused. I have to imagine we’re not so completely powerless that the only way we can have our way is to form a gigantic mob and sharpen up the guillotine.
The orgy of rioting that erupts in reaction to Arthur’s televised insanity is not a victory for anything. Instead of representing some kind of independence movement it’s more like a scene from the French Revolution, from the Great Terror.
Joker is a tour de force by Phoenix. He must have lost an awful lot of weight to appear as emaciated as he is in the film and he wrings an agonizing performance out of his soul and onto the screen. It is painful to watch and leaves you somber at its conclusion. And there is no catharsis because right up to the end there is no sense that anything has been resolved. The Joker is just waiting for his next chance to kill and destroy whatever he can. This is a movie for those who have a taste for darkness. It’s well made. But anyone looking for happily ever after, stay home.