Synopsis: Spare a thought for poor Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Disrespected, bullied, and riddled with psychological problems, Arthur scrapes a meagre existence working as a clown for hire, while dreaming of becoming a stand-up comedian performing on the show of his hero Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro). One might even say that Arthur’s entire existence is nothing more than a bad joke.
1. Buckle up, this one’s gonna be a long one. Mild spoilers abound.
Morality, Antiheroism, and Martin Scorsese
2. Must a film be moral*? This is a question that we will constantly return to. Must a film be moral? Should a film be moral? Most are. Even the seemingly most immoral (and amoral cinema) situates itself within a moral world, because what’s the point of being transgressive if there is nothing to transgress against? The work of a high-minded provocateur like Michael Haneke or a schlock merchant like Eli Roth both rely on a rejection of mainstream moral values – but of course, the rejection of accepted morality is in itself a moral statement. Even (one might say especially) the most shocking of films – and here I think of works like Salo, Martyrs, A Clockwork Orange, A Serbian Film, films that are (in)famously transgressive – are explicitly moral as they question the entire idea of conventional morality or posit that there is no morality left in the world. And so, it is my belief that a film has to be moral in some way, at least for it to work as narrative cinema.
I am not sure if Joker is a moral film. And that’s a problem.
3. Let’s rewind a little and talk about a more pleasant subject. Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He is also one of the most controversial, largely due to the accusation that he ‘glamourises bad behaviour’. This is due to the fact that much of his work features (male) antiheroes who do terrible things and that this, coupled with his visceral and propulsive style of filmmaking, creates a situation where the audience identifies with the antihero and actively roots for them to continue their bad behaviour. This accusation is utter bullshit. While Scorsese’s films (notably Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street) do centre around antiheroic protagonists doing very bad things, it boggles the mind how anybody can watch these films and come away believing that the director condones or even encourages such behaviour. Scorsese’s films always involve some form of moral reckoning, where the protagonist is punished for their crimes. Think Henry Hill living out the rest of his days as a nobody, or Jake LaMotta, alone and unloved, trapped reliving his glory days. Even the films that end with said protagonist being rewarded in the end turn the moralistic judgment back onto society for rewarding said behaviour. The audience is also not let off the hook for its complicity – think of the final shots of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, both explicit meta-references to the watching audience forcing us to reflect on where our loyalties lie.
So why am I talking about Martin Scorsese? For two main reasons. Firstly, he was originally supposed to be an executive producer on Joker. Secondly, director Todd Phillips is clearly doing an imitation of Scorsese in Joker, but unfortunately, his love for Scorsese is rivalled only by his lack of understanding of how Scorsese’s movies work.
4. There is no such reckoning in Joker. If anything, Arthur’s entire arc is a rise to power. When he is meek, he is prey. When he is violent, he is predator. This is it. Violence is rewarded. Arthur loses nothing of note on his journey to become the Joker, and if anything, even seems to welcome it. If the purpose of this movie was to humanise and psychoanalyse how someone could become one of pop culture’s most iconic villains, was the best answer really ‘because he can’? There are no barriers in Arthur’s path to supervillainy (the police are comical) and the journey feels so overdetermined. The movie is called Joker, ergo Arthur must become the Joker, therefore everything (and I mean everything) must push him in that particular direction. There is no guilt, no self-reflection, no moment of reckoning, and this is what separates the slavish copy from the original masterpiece. Phillips can copy Scorsese’s scenes, his plot points, and his camera work, but he misses the forest for the trees. The Scorsese that he worships is the stereotyped moron Marty that his critics claim he is – the guy who makes movies where you root for the bad guy to do bad things. This issue is complicated by …
5. The (excellent) TV show Justified is named after an incident in its pilot, where US Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) essentially goads a criminal to draw a weapon on him so that he can shoot him first as revenge for his dead partner. Givens’ constant repetition that the killing was ‘justified’ becomes a running joke throughout the pilot, because everyone is well aware that he manipulated the situation to justify his own actions. I thought of this throughout Joker, because of how director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver consistently (and unconvincingly) bend over backwards to force their narrative to justify the protagonist’s violent behaviour. This is a Joker who kills only the people who bully him, and explicitly spares those who do not. Even the scene where he might have harmed an innocent is cagily avoided. The film wants you to always take the side of its protagonist by always excusing his violent behaviour. Oh those guys were bullying him. Oh that guy made fun of him. Oh that guy ratted him out. There has been a great deal of hue and cry that this movie might inspire copycat violence, and while I think a lot of that is overblown media nonsense, this is the part of the movie which does give me pause. By rationalising Arthur’s violence and never once questioning the viewer’s identification with him, the film does essentially tell the viewer that what this guy is doing is fine. Totally fine.
6. Compounding this issue is also the world of Joker. Anyone who has seen Phillips’ Hangover movies will know that this is not a man who has a sunny view of the world. However, literally everyone (save the two cast members from Atlanta who wandered in from a more coherent TV show) in this film is cartoonishly evil. Arthur’s violence against them is justified because look how terrible they are! To go back to Scorsese, one (of the very many) brilliant aspect of Taxi Driver is how no one in the film is actually an asshole to Travis. It is undoubtedly his psychosis and alienation that fuels his murderous rage, along with the belief that he is doing good by ‘liberating’ Iris. This categorically does not exist in Joker, and it is almost comical how out of the way people seem to go to be shitty to Arthur to the point of physical violence. Even the characters that ought to be heroic, like the Wayne family, are just more of the same flavour of abusive violent asshole. This, of course, serves as a nice little justification for him to go all shooty-shooty stabby-stabby to them, and allows the audience to continue their uncomplicated relationship with him. By having Arthur’s violence be purely reactive against people who deserve it, the film rationalises his behaviour and never once questions it even when it should.
One Bad Day
7. Let us not forget (as though such a thing were possible) that the movie is not just about any murderous psychopath. No, it is about the murderous psychopath, the Clown Prince of Crime, Mr. J, the Joker. In the current age, there are two ways to portray the origin of the Joker. The first is the one undertaken by writers like Grant Morrison and the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight series. In this version, the Joker is a being of pure chaos and anarchy, a representation of the darkness in the human soul. This version of the Joker has no origin, he feels almost willed into existence by the world (or through the presence of Batman). The second is the version popularised by Alan Moore’s seminal comic The Killing Joke, where the Joker is a normal man who undergoes ‘one bad day’ and completely snaps. This Joker is the embodiment of every human being’s capacity for evil. Phillips and Silver, however, attempt to take a middle ground option, which does not work.
8. Arthur Fleck is pretty clearly intended to be a sympathetic character, what with his squalid living conditions and the people mocking him and so on. So this is the second type of Joker, right? The one where a decent guy snaps and breaks bad? Not so fast, for Arthur is clearly riddled with issues, including a propensity for violence (he fantasises about shooting a man) and a very weird relationship with the opposite sex (he stalks a woman as soon as he meets her). So which is it? Is this the story of an evil man or a good man pushed into evil? The answer, of course, is ‘both’, which to me is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. It is (like so many other things in this movie) a cop-out, an attempt to be all things to all people and to abdicate the responsibility of its protagonist’s actions. Joker‘s proponents will claim that this is what makes the movie brilliant, and that this is not abdication, but ambiguity. Must a movie outline everything for you, silly man? Can’t it exist within the space between black and white? To which my answer is that this is clearly not a film that trucks in ambiguity and subtlety, as evidenced in paragraph 6. This is a movie that makes thuddingly obvious from the get go that it is about the problem of evil and garbs itself in the cloak of serious meaningful picture. It does not earn the right to shrug off these questions and say ‘it’s just all, like, unknowable, maaaaaaaaaan.’ The Killing Joke gives a definitive, powerful answer to the question of evil. Batman does not succumb. Gordon does not succumb. The Joker himself is the one to blame. The Dark Knight does the exact same thing. And this is one more major issue with the world of assholes that Joker creates. There is no counterpoint, no ballast to the Joker’s philosophy (or anti-philosophy, which we will get to). There is just bad and badder. And so, Phillips and Silver very nicely deal with the problem of evil by claiming that everyone is to blame. Is it an individual flaw? A societal issue? A weakness at the heart of the human race? Any of it! All of it! Who cares? Well, when the movie is explicitly framed around the question of evil, then the filmmakers really ought to care. Which is why after all the sturm und drang in the press about this movie being pure evil (on one hand) and a total masterpiece (on another), the only response I had at the end was … that’s it?
Is that all there is?
How to use the Joker to make an actual statement, part 2
Ve Believe In Nussink, Lebowski
9. In The Coen Brothers’ comedic masterpiece The Big Lebowski, the character of Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) memorably says, in response to finding out that they are being pursued by a group of German nihilists, and not Nazis as he had assumed:
“Nihilists! … Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
It is one of the funniest lines in a film that is comprised of nothing but funny lines, and like the best comedy, it is funny because it is true. Nihilism, or the ‘belief in nothing’, as Lebowski puts it, is fundamentally pointless. There is no end to it.
10. Must a film be moral? Should a film be moral? Yes it does, because otherwise, what’s the point*? Is Joker a moral film? I do not know. Joker, I believe, is a nihilistic film. It has nothing to say beyond ‘everything and everyone is bad’. It believes in nussink, Lebowski. It is a film about a not-so-bad (but still bad) person who is in a bad world where bad things happen and so he becomes badder to the point where he is the baddest of them all. The end. Roll credits. It has nothing meaningful to say beyond ‘everyone and everything sucks because … well, because they suck, ok’ and if you believe that this is a suitable philosophy for a movie which has grander ambitions beyond being a generic superhero product, then thank you for reading my blog and I’m sorry for wasting your time because you will not find anything here for you. Joker has the worldview of an edgy 15-year-old, who does not realise that ‘the world sucks’ should be the start of the conversation rather than the end of it.
11. All of Joker‘s issues would not amount to anything if it were just a run-of-the-mill bad movie. The problem is that, purely from a technical perspective, Joker is an excellent movie. Phillips’ direction (cribbed shamelessly from Scorsese) captures that visceral 70s-style cinema where it manages to be both docu-realistic and expressionistic. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is stunning, with beautiful shot compositions and a real sense of scale that many movies today lack. And of course, Phoenix (who I’ve referred to as the best actor of his generation) is never short of brilliant, and his performance as Arthur Fleck is another magnificent portrayal in his personal canon of damaged men. His portrayal of Arthur goes right to the bone, with its most obvious feature being Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter that seems to genuinely cause him physical pain. In it’s finest moments (which come fairly often**), Joker possesses an awful, terrible power that bubbles up from the alchemy between Phoenix’s performance, the quality of the filmmaking and the oppressive griminess of its world. Yet all this amounts to writing a sonnet about a turd, for all the craftsmanship in the world cannot fill up the thematic void at the heart of the movie.
12. With all that, it is no wonder why there has been pearl-clutching*** about the film’s propensity to cause violence. Leaving aside the (very real) context of disaffected, mentally ill young white men going on murderous rampages, it is not difficult to watch Joker and come away with the perspective that violence is a course of action that is not only acceptable, but even encouraged. The argument that portrayal does not equate to support (which I have used to defend Scorsese) does not convince me in this case, for I think I have done enough to show that the film does not simply portray Arthur’s misdeeds, but goes one step further to defend them. By creating a world that is cruel and cartoonishly aggressive for no good reason****, and by having Arthur lash out only at the people who ‘deserve it’, while never providing any sort of punishment or reckoning for his actions, Joker is very much a film that claims that violence is the answer. At the climax of the film, Arthur (who is fully in the persona of the Joker) claims that he stands for nothing but self-gratification and revenge, which earns him a dressing-down from a character that accurately points out what an entitled and narcissistic point-of-view this is – only this character has been consistently portrayed as a smarmy bullying asshole, so why should we take that message seriously? The best antihero narratives have a moral centre somewhere to serve as a counterpoint to their protagonists – think Jesse in Breaking Bad, Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos, Detective Kimball in American Psycho, H.W. Plainview in There Will Be Blood – the list is endless*****. With no such figure in Joker, there is nothing to latch onto outside our protagonist other than the void.
13. This, then, is the problem with Joker. A film too well-made to ignore and too badly-conceptualised to take seriously. A film of undeniable power but no purpose. A film that wants to provoke its audience, but only for the sake of provocation. A film that wants you to identify with its protagonist unquestioningly, even when he goes off the deep end. A film that believes that ‘everything sucks’ represents the high water mark of meaningful statements. A film that, while it might not say that violence is the answer to your problems, certainly does very little to argue against it. A film that maybe, possibly, perhaps, is not moral. Joker is a joke without a punchline. And what is the point of that?
*Just to make it extremely clear, a moral film is not a moralistic one. It simply means that it is a film that deals with morality in some way. A film that chooses to reject all morality is still a moral one, and one might say even more moral than a film that blindly and unthinkingly props up conventional morality without meaning to do so.
**Off the top of my head, the subway scene is genuinely one of the finest of the year – a masterpiece of dread that is shot and edited for maximal effect.
***Which I am not terribly on board with for the simple reason that violent people will find a justification for their violence. The Matrix and Fight Club are intelligent, subtle films with fantastic societal critiques that have been adopted and valorised by the wrong group of people who latch on to what they want and jettison the rest. Still, a film should not make it easier for these guys to justify their actions, if you get what I mean.
****Joker feints at issues of social inequality and society’s treatment of the mentally ill, but this amounts to very little beyond background flavour. Besides, its treatment is so heavy-handed (notice a running theme here?) that it bears little to no resemblance to real life.
*****Mind you, I’m not saying this ‘moral centre character’ is 100% necessary, only that some form of counterbalance is needed. A Clockwork Orange has no such character, but it still works because it is made by Stanley fucking Kubrick. Todd Phillips is a talented filmmaker, but he is no Stanley fucking Kubrick.