“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
The reason why a perpetually crushed ego is unable to develop mature emotions is because all the psychic energy a person can tap into is used to restore the defiled dignity. This does not mean that the pain is not real, it only means that’s all there is. Hence the narcissistic wound appears as a joke to others, and molten lava to the one that carries it within.
That is, until it erupts, becoming everyone’s nightmare.
I’m still not sure if I should give this film one star or five for its gut-punch, but anything in between would be meaningless. It’s equally repulsive and fascinating. There is something corpse-like about it. You cannot unsee it.
In essence, Todd Phillips‘s Joker is Antonin Artaud‘s wet dream set in DC’s Gotham City, an origins story, intellectually dangerous cinema, at the same time telling the truth, and lighting a match. It’s a manifesto of sorts, and the only way to view it healthily is to treat it as a type of a public service – giving us a step-by-step trajectory of oppression engendering humiliation, turning into violence, turning into a philosophy.
It’s too potent as art to ignore or dismiss, and highly flammable politically to treat lightly. This is because the medium and the message are in conflict, so we get pure 21st century existentialism fueled by low-grade nihilist comic book testosterone.
The opening scene is set on October 15th, a shout-out to Nietzsche – it’s his birthday, maybe as an open homage or a dog-whistle for history nerds (apparently, me). And if this is a coincidence – then I must have seen a completely different film than I thought I did. Which I doubt, muchly.
Everything within it is entirely deliberate. It’s perhaps its only real fault – that perfectionist attitude revealing an undercurrent of anxiety in the filmmaking itself, as if the director’s hand is trembling from the enormity of the task he sets himself up for. Which is mostly allowing Joaquin Pheonix‘s performances to unfold, while he burns like he were an archangel on heroin, a contorted otherworldly presence that under a different constellation of stars would have ended up a saint.
As it happens, he goes for the demonic, discovering within it that creative spark he searched for all his life spent as a non-entity. And the pressure-cooker of poverty, neglected mental illness, and consistent emotional deprivation makes this choice somewhat easier. This is troubling. And it should be troubling. Because it has a distinct ring of reality to it in this superhero universe, which immediately ceases to be a superhero universe, melding as quicksilver into a type of villainology, ultra-reality and urban folk hero mythology, combined. Rioting mobs masked as clowns, and Batman’s origins, indeed.
To all calling out Joker‘s grimness/pretension, almost a sign of the crucifix to the why so serious? tagline, think about this: if it were not for Nietzsche, how would we know of the superman? The complete concept was born in that original individualist nihilist mind – a siren call of the fallen genius to the disenfranchised to rise to the occasion of their existence – one that was so catastrophically misinterpreted, so philosophically mangled, so politically defiled, that perhaps it might have been better for it to never have existed at all. Which is exactly what a nihilist would seek, as what is more exhilarating to anyone of the mindset, than a death of an idea?
The point is, the Joker is fundamentally an individualist anarchist narrative that could easily go collectivist alt-right, that much the critics almost united in their nervous disdain got accurately. However, the audiences are either walking out or giving the film post-screening ovations (of which I witnessed one). That’s pretty inconvenient. It means something, culturally. The film’s moral ambivalence in taking bottom-line sides makes the entire phenomenon even more problematic, in the political sense, but not in an artistic or humanist one. Discussing Joker becomes a precious social experiment in intellectual courage, watching it – a purgatory in emotional honesty.
The fact is that many budding jokers exist out there, alt-right incels or just lonely souls living in poverty, battling mental issues, which is what this antihero really is. They won’t go away if we look away. On the contrary. The more they feel shunned, belittled and ignored, the more they will be driven to meltdown. That’s how it works in human nature. And that’s what this film nails, fully.
Will they be influenced by the film, as per concerns raised upon release? Highly unlikely, as art generally inspires catharsis, not mayhem, or at least – we hope not. But they’ll inevitably find inspiration somewhere else, if they are looking for it. And censoring art because it tells the truth in a dangerous way plays into the worst impulses of the liberal left, and the deepest desires of the extreme right.
We also forget at our own peril that fascist movements throughout history had working-class roots, and grew strong by addressing actual exploitation, while secretly aligning their strategy with corporate interests. Watching the end of Joker gave me a bad feeling I could not shake for hours afterwards.
Arthur Fleck, the man behind the mask, is a tragic apolitical loner, alienated from his deceptively caring mother, a sweetly sinister Frances Conroy (all cinema mothers turn out to be the culprits when there is psychosis involved), a kind but profoundly romantically disinterested neighbour (Zazie Beetz), and generally derisive ex-colleagues (bar one notable exception) – who finally finds affection and adulation he sought all his life in his way more socially organised brethren. In the end.
This is how all monsters are born, the bloody credits set amidst an asylum escape seem to say. And I thank the filmmakers for reminding us of it.
If you manage to look at the film without a subjective lens, and that is a tall order – what you will see is simply a dire warning of what the enormous disparity in wealth across the globe is slowly building up to, and how this divide is potentially impacting the most vulnerable in society.
Or you’ll just see an unorthodox, cunning supervillan studio movie, featuring a virtuoso smarmy Robert De Niro playing a stand-up mentor/torturer, essentially a Jerry Langford character, in a meta-plot to derail an aspiring comic/psychotic Travis Bickle Phoenix into an inadvertent laugh. For shallow kicks and a lot of monies.
No matter. Nowadays, the access to the lives of the small percent living the good life is just a click away from the vast ocean of the ones that are devastatingly dispossessed. Facing life at the edge of dignity becomes that more heartbreaking. And some hearts break with greater damage. A few, forever.
Love it or hate it, handle it with caution. As if it were explosive. Because it is.