“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin’ deserve!” Joker
Joker was such an overwhelming film that I went to see it twice in less than a week writes Andy Stowe. From Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score to Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible central performance as Arthur Fleck, the damaged man who becomes the Joker, everything about it creates such a viscerally unsettling piece of cinema that it’s easy to understand why it’s been both such a commercial success and the subject of intense debates about its real meaning. It’s variously been interpreted as inciting involuntarily celibate men (incels) to commit acts of violence and “the avatar of a populist movement of like-minded losers.”
Director Todd Phillips, previously best known for the witless Hangover trilogy, has created a work which has nothing in common with the equally witless superhero franchises. His Joker resembles Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. He’s an outsider who doesn’t quite understand how the world and relationships work and spends forty years of his life trying to fit in, punctuated with spells in a psychiatric hospital. His only real relationship is with his bed-ridden mother. Rather like Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, Fleck can only imagine an alternative life in which he has a romantic relationship with a neighbour. You’ll have noticed that Phillips is quite an admirer of Martin Scorsese who directed all three of these films.
Gotham City is a sprawling, filthy place with mountains of rubbish on the streets. It evokes the New York of Taxi Driver with its constant air of tension and a sense that violence is just below the surface. It’s a city with masses of poor people at the end of their tether dominated by a plutocratic élite, an obvious nod to the second decade of the twenty first century, even down to the fact that social services and mental health provision are wiped out by an austerity programme.
Pleck murders three obnoxious bankers and becomes a hero to the majority of the city’s population. They take to the streets wearing variations of the clown costume he was wearing at the time of the killing. They want their revenge on the rich and riot, the historical form of expression of the voiceless oppressed. One of them inspired by Pleck murders the Trumpish mayoral candidate and his wife in front of the child we know will grow up to be the bourgeois avenger Batman. Pleck has shed his own identity and become Joker and the subsequent Batman series confirms that while he might have diagnosed that his world his becoming crazier, his anarchic nihilism isn’t able to fix it.
Is the film asking us how Pleck’s misery, the social dysfunction and mayhem could have been avoided? If so, the answer is simple enough. Society invests in high quality social care provision for children and parents; it makes sure mental health services are well funded; governments prevent large inequalities in wealth. It’s not so much a call for socialist revolution or submitting the ruling class to a reign of terror as an argument for a fairly decent Labour style election manifesto.
Pleck’s Joker is a casualty of a malfunctioning society. He’s neither a leader nor a hero and the only people who could see him as such are casualties too.