One time I was talking to a guy who’d been married to one of my friends. This was after he lost his grip on reality and started dressing up like Batman. He told me about being on the MAX and seeing a bunch of bikers harassing an old lady. “And everyone’s looking at me,” he said, “because I’m the guy dressed up like Batman.”
It’s doubtful that anyone on the MAX train actually expected a man dressed like Batman to behave as a Batman would, but the conversation compounded my anxiety about men who lose sight of the tremendously important line where fiction ends and reality begins. That same anxiety popped up in advance of Joker, The Hangover director Todd Phillips’ gritty look at Batman’s arch-nemesis, which seeks to both paint a serious portrait of mental illness AND ALSO revel in the glory that awaits those who just want to watch the world burn.
Strangely, Joker succeeds at both attempts. If you’re a dude who believes in chaos for the sake of chaos, this film was made for you. If you think society should do more to support people with mental illness so they don’t live lives of misery in which they’re victims and—very rarely—perpetrators of violence, this movie is also singing your song.
Joker isn’t really the story of a good man gone bad; clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is troubled from the outset. He’s barely scraping by, living with his mother (Frances Conroy) and coming undone due to cuts in social services. Sure, Phillips overdoes it with long, panning explorations of Fleck’s bruised, skinny ribs, but then again, men with insecurities about being skinny are presumably the film’s target audience.
The first half hour unfolds like a dog-whistle symphony for insecure guys who think they have it bad. Fleck berates his Black social worker (Sharon Washington) for not listening to him when she’s obviously doing her best. He fixates on a Black single mother (Zazie Beetz) after the briefest sign of camaraderie. He’s beaten by a gang of teenagers shouting unimaginative barbs: “Hurt him! Hurt him! Take his stuff!”
Yet there are a series of trap doors throughout Joker that unexpectedly drop its audience into new perspectives. Early on, an obvious foreshadow shifts Fleck onto a new path, and as that plotline plays out, Joker offers some surprisingly rewarding reflections on the relationship between the villain and Batman. (Oh yeah! This is a Batman movie, remember?) Both men, Joker suggests, might be equally deranged, making sweeping moves against the world without regard for those who become collateral damage for their respective manias.
This made me wonder if Joker is a bait-and-switch. Was this movie made to lure in creepy guys who identify with the Joker, then show them what crazy really looks like? Are Phillips’ recent comments about comedy being ruined by “woke culture” part of a long con? Both possibilities seem unlikely. But can an asshole make a good movie? Ugh. Probably.
I’m not ready to label Joker something as simple as “good.” Joker is problematic, transgressive, insulting, and it’s also probably art. At the risk of hyperbole, Joker might represent a new approach to popular cinema: This is a movie that works both for people who see it to luxuriate in the fearsome power of the Joker’s violence, and those who will instead see the character as pitiable. The fact that Joker works for both has me wondering if, going forward, more films will abandon a singular viewpoint. Phillips’ approach feels like a perfect fit for our current polarized culture.
Does Fleck laugh at Gary (Leigh Gill), his coworker with dwarfism, because Fleck has a nervous tic, or is he laughing because he wants his clown colleague Randall (Glenn Fleshler) to like him? Were the terrible things that happened to Fleck due to the actions of his mother, or were both of them victims of domestic violence? In many of its plot points, Joker leaves room for alternate interpretations, allowing viewers to make up their own minds or—most interesting of all—recognize that both versions can be true.