JOKER Review: What Made This So…Disturbing?
Way back in 2008, Christopher Nolan (and furthermore the performance by Heath Ledger) shocked the world, introducing us to his dark take on the Joker in "Dark Knight," the second installment in his caped-crusader trilogy. Fans raved, feeling almost unworthy of such a fantastic play on the character, throwing any and all childish intricacies to the wind. We were rewarded with a fresh, mature villain – one that led us to believe how real, and maybe even right, the Joker and his nihilistic beliefs could be. As the comic book industry exploded with films like "The Avengers" in the MCU, moviegoers and comic-book fanatics alike wondered when would we be granted with another marvelous antagonist, one that leaves us questioning the morality of not only the protagonist but the world outside of the story.
Several writers took a crack at the story. Whether you believe they did the character, any justice is not up for debate here, but what remains evident is that none were able to stand the test of overwhelming intrigue. The foreboding hype and post discussions all centered around the comparison: "Was this better than Ledger?". Almost always, the answer was not in favor of the newcomer, rather only strengthening the otherworldly majesty of Dark Knight's iteration. Any attempt henceforth felt unnecessary. Audiences would eventually grow bored with the Joker. How many ways could you give a man with no true backstory, heightened levels of credence? How many actors could method act their way into superstardom, portraying their "unique" take on the crazed clown? We were torn between hoping to see Ledger outdone and believing it was impossible – and rightfully so. But one thing we underestimated was the competitive fire of the writers behind the screen.
Tragic storytellers and character obsessed writers salivated at the opportunity. The world of Gotham has been a storyline of intrigue since its origin, especially the story that pit Joker against Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. The story contained an edge other super-hero stories seemed dull against; the pure grit and humanness of the protagonist ringing a chord with writers. From Adam West to Robert Pattinson, writers and directors paired with actors for a chance to become the new standard in the world of Gotham. The varying outcomes for which Bruce Wayne stands tallest are constantly in disagreement, and those debates are mere mumbles compared to discussions on the Clown Prince. And up to October 3rd, 2019 – 11 years after its release to the public – Heath Ledger's obsessive approach constructed by Nolan and company's nihilistic writing reigned supreme. The Michael Jordan in a world of Kobe Bryant's. But on October 4th, 2019, incomes the figurative LeBron James.
I am a firm believer that there is a reason why audiences around the globe have seemed so drawn to the Joker. The lack of a cohesive back story didn't stop the world from loving the character. The Joker was impervious to typical character arcs, invulnerable to clear motivations, and yet, writers of all backgrounds have attempted their take. The affinity to break the rules is intoxicating, and the Joker is the top shelf.
I introduce you to Todd Philips.
A man whose body of work needs no introduction, writing films such as "Road Trip," "Borat," and writing/directing the Hangover trilogy, the casual audience often is left surprised at the revelation. True, Philips has yet to dabble in a film of this style, so the shock is justified. Openly against the current "woke" culture, Philips has previously announced he was done with comedy. Ironic, then, that the character that brought him back to the top of Hollywood's upper echelon of filmmakers, was one who laughed whether he wished to or not
*Minor Spoilers Ahead*
Enter: Arthur Fleck, a man so down on his luck that the audience fights an internal struggle to avoid feeling sympathy for him since it is clear who he is soon to become. Consider the ones who lived under a rock their entire life the unlucky ones. Fleck works a more than fitting job as a clown-for-hire in the 1970's New York…I mean, Gotham. It doesn't fit just off the apparent foreshadowing, but because Fleck has a mental disorder that causes him to fall into painful and cringe-worthy laughing fits, especially in high anxiety situations. What other career paths would be acceptable with his disability? Don't worry, Arthur's already found the answer, but more on that later. Coupled with his overall awkwardness and disconnect from trivial social interactions, this leaves Arthur at the wrong end of ridicule and physical abuse from strangers. Failing in social environments, Arthur seeks to find solace from the pharmaceutical industry.
Clearly not having the funds to provide adequate healthcare - because choosing the life of a clown-for-hire isn't among the lucrative – a state-appointed social worker serves as his doctor, therapist, and the only outlet for processing his thoughts. Unfortunately, the clutter around her desk points to the fact that she is overworked, and like Arthur, underpaid. After she asks to read his journal, he informs her that he uses it to write jokes. However, Arthur's form of joking is in the way of brutally honest thoughts that only seem to find the light of day through his comedic outlet. In the journal, he writes, "I just hope my death makes more sense than my life." Funny, right? Regardless, this is a low hanging fruit, because most of us know what it feels like to think this way. We've all had depressing thoughts. At this point, most of us are absurdly sympathetic; the connection between negative thoughts is the final urge to grasp the fruit. If only we knew this fruit was poisonous.
“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How is your job? Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” – Arthur Fleck
To make matters worse, Arthur's home life served as no shelter. Residing within a building that would better be served as an abandoned complex, Arthur's small apartment was made even smaller by his roommate: his estranged mother, who bore the appearance of a terminally ill patient on her last leg. Arthur proudly acted as a caregiver, boasting in one of his hopeful visions that he's been "the man of the house" since his father was out of the picture. Seemingly on the brink of dementia, Penny Fleck seems obsessed with a letter she is expecting from Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne's billionaire father), one we can only assume will never come. To past time and subdue the negative thoughts, Arthur watches a popular late-night TV talk show and attempts to grow closer to the pretty neighbor girl, who oddly seems to connect with him unlike anyone else in Arthur's life.
I'll save anymore synopsis for the film itself, but what's important here is that the first act serves as a prime example of relaying exposition in a clear, yet entertaining way. They toss away the mundanity of narration or the overuse of flashbacks, choosing not to rely on the audience's knowledge of Bruce Wayne's over-told story. We're given all the information we need to sympathize with Arthur, regardless of the information we already possess. A city - and furthermore - society is crumbling under the weight of poverty, a clear divide between the haves and have nots, and a need for a beacon of change, being portrayed from the mind of a psychotic, yet harmless bystander. We're given everything we need to connect, something that hasn't been done with the Joker in this vain before, while simultaneously establishing the foundation necessary to destroy Arthur from the outside in.
“If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me. I pass you every day and you don’t notice me!” – Arthur Fleck
To our pleasure, the film never lags, even at its plus 2-hour runtime. As we make our way to the inciting incident, we are completely drawn into Joaquin Phoenix's performance. The pure embarrassment and gut-wrenching anguish Phoenix portrays as the laughing fits take over, leave us empty, only accompanied by small swells of anger at the people who don't understand his predicament, or refuse to. The clear parallels to how the world is outside of the story are painful because we all have been the bystanders on the bus, wishing our stop would approach sooner to be away from the "crazy person," but little do we ever consider their situations or what led them there. We're so inclined to avoid what's different, that we alienate the ones who want nothing more than to feel normal. And Philips brings that to the forefront. So much so, that there's a slight feeling of hope when Arthur receives the gun (what I consider the inciting incident), that finally, he'll be able to defend himself. But just as soon as they build this suffocating empathy, they turn it on our heads, and we wish we've never let our guard down.
As Arthur's life and mind begin to unravel – as if it was together, to begin with – our sympathy begins to betray us. One of my favorite scenes in the film, and there were many, was when Arthur locked himself in his refrigerator. To me, this was the death of Arthur Fleck - the misunderstood, mentally ill, caregiver who only wanted to succeed and make life easier for him and his mother, and to be adored by his peers for once in his sad life – and the birth of the murderous, unforgiving narcissist, The Joker. At this point, all the things we used to identify with Arthur - scarce they maybe - are ripped in front of us, left in heaps on the floor so that we don't forget them, but even worse, that we remember at one point we cheered for this man to "win."
This brings me to other anti-heroes in recent relevance. What makes characters like Walter White, Jax Teller, and Deadpool so adored? The latter, for obvious reasons, using its heavy comedic and comic-book roots to keep us removed from the dark undertones, but what about Breaking Bad's meth-cooking father of the year? Nothing seems closer to home than a middle-aged suburban father who feels like his life hasn't lived up to its full potential. Yet, there were no outbursts of audiences being left numb at the series conclusion. Sad? Sure. Shallow even. But recent memory doesn't recall critics and viewers calling for its ban. Bryan Cranston and Phoenix both performed with near perfection in their respective roles, leaving little doubt that a long list of awards will follow their names. Both portray men so ruthless and narcissistic that death follows them to the tune of their apathy – oh, sorry…spoiler alert – while one is still loved and celebrated, the other, with their ironically similar personality traits, is deemed so inhumane that the story best is avoided.
“No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skylar, I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” – Walter White.
Maybe the only difference here is that most of us wouldn't turn to the life of a drug dealer, and for those of us that try, more than likely aren't half as good as Heisenberg. Weird then, because the same can be said for people who would turn to the life of a murderous clown…for now. Occupational hazards aside, there is something that danced to the beat of a different drum. The beat that differentiates this Joker from any of the others. The beat that makes Arthur Fleck so present and disruptive and allows Tony Soprano to be so distant, yet alluring is the reality where the stories reside.
As I sat in the theater, my heart began to race, blood pressure steadily climbing as the Joker began to make his big reveal to the world. The pure uneasiness was already at its breaking point, as I noticed a few viewers head for the exit. Maybe they were making their way to the restroom, but that would be the absolute worst timing for a potty break – not buying it. There was uniform anxiety that hovered over the audience, and the presence of a security guard at this precise moment didn't aid in calming us down. Now, this can also have been done because of the tragedy that took place in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," and rightfully so. Still, I believe the heightened security and knowledge of the event only aided in the film's hysteria.
To be blunt – it all just felt too real. Pre-hype rumors speculated that Philips was using the film to provide social commentary. It's so blatant; he might as well have come out and say it in the opening credits. That isn't to say it wasn't done creatively or with tact – in fact, it was done masterfully. The transparency stemmed from our understanding of the world and the social climate around us. As Arthur goes through his journey, the world around him is beginning to crumble. Tensions are high, and social divides are taking form. The funding to the office which supplies Arthur's medicine is cut off, along with it - his state-funded psychologist - paralleling how many of us feel about the healthcare system in our world. Violence is rampant, and until after a good portion of the film, there is a significant lack of police presence. Arthur himself falls into desperation, among other reasons, but including raising his class and with it, social status. He dreams of becoming a comedian, fantasizing about himself on talk shows, and what he wishes his life could be like. He wants to care for his sickly mother. He wants to be liked. The funny thing about it is that we share those same desires. While plenty has the desire – and bravery – to embark on the road of a comedian, not everyone wants to become the next Dave Chappelle. Some of us are content staying away from fame and undying social notoriety, but one thing we all have in common is wanting to be comfortable. Not as much in the specific, but in the universal. A small house, away from the rest of the world; a suburban home with a backyard, enough space for the kids and maybe a dog or two; enough to pay my parents bills. The differing levels of comfortability are endless, but we all wish to experience whatever it is our specific definition of the word is. Well, so does Arthur, and now the collective audience is no longer comfortable.
That's it. That's where the magic and despair stem from – a gift and a curse. Arthur is so, bone-chillingly close to us, that even Phoenix's intention of making the Joker unrelatable didn't quite work entirely. Now, most of us are nothing like Arthur Fleck…knocking on wood. Most of us know nothing of what it's like to fall under uncontrollable laughter, although unfortunately, some do, even they aren't planning to commit murders dressed as clowns. Obviously, the differences are immense, but the point is that those little feelings we share, those wants and desires, those fears of being disliked, are enough to complete the relation. We understand his wants, and with that, understand him. Sure, some will swear they felt no connection, which is perfectly reasonable – and probably preferred – but even for those individuals, it goes no further than six degrees of separation. We all have experienced a seemingly "crazy" individual out in the world that we wished to steer away from - premature judgment aside - but "Joker," puts "crazy" in the driver's seat. Todd Philips just gave the guy who talks to himself on the bus ride home a backstory.
As we leave the theater, after the Joker's grim and bloody grin dance in a brazen, psychotic triumph, we ask ourselves, "why did this bother us so much?" It's because this didn't feel like the comic book world of Gotham. This felt like New York. This felt like Chicago. This felt like home. A mix of preconceived expectations of what we thought we knew about the Joker, the unsettling realness of Arthur's struggle and the crippled society around him, coupled with the anxiety of what occurred years prior at a theater presenting a story in a similar world came together in perfect, disturbing harmony. And as Joker committed his misinterpreted, but timely radical stance against the oppressors, the uneasy public assembled behind him. The people needed someone to rally behind, and Joker needed to be loved. A match made in heaven, and mirroring our society, doesn't seem like more than one bad joke away.
About the Author: Jordan Criss
Jordan Criss is a creative storyteller and has wide-ranging interests from music, screenwriting, and anime. At his core, Jordan believes in being authentic, and it comes through in his writing. In his own life, Jordan explores the emotions and where it resonates with those around him. If you’re interested in following along on his journey, follow him on Instagram (@crisshappens).
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