“Joker” – a tricky masterpiece

“That’s not funny.”

Story: Arthur Fleck is a born underdog; the kind of man who’s the living embodiment of Murphy’s Law. All he wants to do is make people laugh, won’t anyone just laugh? They’ll laugh, alright. They’d better.

Genre I’d put it in: Brilliant Films That Make Me Go Hmm

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the character (and his mythology) from DC Comics.

Gotta say: Hot damn this movie is brilliant. It’s also troublesome, problematic, and makes me wonder about what will happen once wackadoos get a load of this Mistah J. You’re tearin’ me apart, Joker. So I’m going to break this into two parts; my thoughts on the movie as a movie, and my thoughts on the movie as a societal firestarter. Let’s do this.

The film itself? It blew me away. I sat in the theater as the end credits ran, trying to piece together my thoughts. I couldn’t. Took me quite a while to even get here, and to be honest I’m still processing but I’ve got a deadline. (And to be honest I don’t know if I’ll come up with a solid thought about this film, not for a long long time.)

Why? Because director Todd Phillips throws a lot at his audience. Societal neglect of the mentally ill. How “I got mine” culture stabs have-nots in the back. The way an indifferent society can lead to disaster. It’s a helluva lot to process, but Phillips is unrelenting, never letting the audience get comfortable. It felt as if I was living the story with Arthur, trying my best to grasp things but failing miserably. Joker is a character study that pulls us in, demanding we all look at what we’d much rather pretend doesn’t exist…until things reach critical mass and we all wonder why tragedy happened. Stick a pin in that, I’ll get back to it in part two.

The performances are more than Oscar bait, they’re stunning. This may be Joaquin Phoenix’s career best, and yeah I’m counting You Were Never Here and The Master. His Arthur is damaged, yet Phoenix gives him a pathos that had me rooting for him. I couldn’t look away, even when I really, really wanted to. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I found myself cheering for the Joker during the film’s inevitably bloody end. I wasn’t the only one; there were lots of cheers to be heard, even over the onscreen bombast.

As we spend the majority of the film in the mind of Arthur, the other characters are only briefly shown from scene to scene. Still, they pack a punch. AHS‘s Frances Conroy is delightfully vague as Arthur’s mother Penny, and Zazie Beetz is sweetly caring as their neighbor. Brett Cullen is Thomas Wayne writ large and horrible; who knew Bruce’s dad was such a total dick? Yet it’s believable, because of the way the screenplay plays with the truth.

There are many unreliable narrators in Joker, which makes piecing together the “truth” of this origin story difficult. I loved that. This film pays homage to the various and sundry (especially the sundry) stories the Clown Prince of Crime has told about his beginnings, and just when you think you’ve got a line on what’s true, this film shifts gears. Again, and again, and again. It’s glorious.

Now, about that firestarter thing. As with classics like Taxi Driver and Scarface, Joker seems destined to be taken the wrong way by the jerkwads of society desperate for any excuse to be the bastards they’ve always longed to be. Yes, this film is just that; a story on celluloid. It’s not real, and folks that don’t have an honest to goodness issue with mental clarity can figure that out instantly. We’ve all grown up with make-believe, in all sorts of mediums. However, there have always been individuals out there longing for fame, who will take any way to get it. Even if that means pretending a work of art caused them to break, or obsessing over something until in that person’s mind it’s no longer art, it’s their inner voice calling to them.

I’m sure I’ll screw up what I’m trying to get across, but let me be as clear as my tiny brain can manage. ART DOES NOT CAUSE PEOPLE TO SNAP. Films, books, television programs, acrylics, songs, video games…nothing causes someone to flip their inner switch to kill mode. People who are violent are so for reasons much more personal, and have problems we as a society should address and aid whenever possible. (That we don’t, as well as why and how we should, are subjects best addressed by better minds than mine. Ditto for distinguishing between people who have a mental disability, and those who are just horrible people trying to “get one over” on the system.) Joker shows how one man’s suffering can cause him to snap, and then start a revolution anarchy. It’s a story that perversely echoes V for Vendetta, and as with any film that has a violent climax, there’s gonna be folks who fist-pump and scream “Yeah Baybee!” I sigh. And I feel kinda icky because of my own reactions to this film’s climax.

In a world where people love saying “Say Hello To My Little Friend”, have Travis Bickle tattoos, and celebrate horror slashers (hey, I resemble that last remark…) the overwhelming majority of us know it’s all stuff and nonsense. But for a small subset of a subset, it can become something more sinister. With the cries for change on both sides of the aisle in these emotionally charged times, that someone could use art as a template scares me, even as my horror-loving heart clenches at the thought of others condemning art for that reason. Censorship isn’t the answer. Change, and perhaps a touch more kindness, is. Or at least it’s a start.

Let’s hope this film starts conversations about how to make the world a better place. And hey, one or two chats about how the DCU should dive into their DC Dark stash and come up with more compelling think pieces. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Grade: A-

#Protip: If you’re looking for more dark tales of the Joker, may I humbly suggest The Killing Joke? No, not the animated film. The graphic novel.

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