I’m not certain what writer/director Todd Philips or co-writer Scott Silver had in mind for a “message” — if any — from their much-anticipated, just-released Joker, but I confess this political conservative/Bible-believing Christian came out of the theater stirred into two dominant reactions: an agitated contemplation; and a rather deep sadness.
First off, on a purely cinematic plane, this dramatic thriller is a masterpiece of atmospherics, specifically in the version of the iconic “Gotham” it summons. Joker represents a throwback, of sorts; a trip into a grimy stand-in for early 1980’s, Koch-era New York City, complete with bleak, late-autumn hardwoods, steaming garbage heaped up to window levels, herds of gas-guzzlers prowling the boulevards and persons smoking inside buildings stocked with typewriters, VCRs and bulky analog televisions. Appropriate for any Batman spin-off worth its ticket price, the frowzy metropolis itself serves as a character in the film; moody, menacing, looming.
Then, of course, there’s Joaquin’s Phoenix’s unsparing performance. The forty-four-year-old actor has built quite the reputation on his idiosyncratic persona, but he ain’t got nothing on Arthur Fleck. Phoenix transforms himself for this role into a creepily gaunt — actually, jaggedly skeletal — shell. With his horrible, mullet-like hairdo and relentlessly shabby wardrobe, he is supremely perfect for what we see of this despairing city. “A Sodom of diseased souls,” National Review‘s Kyle Smith accurately styles it — and Fleck is tormentedly at home in its midst. Phoenix’s turn as Joker’s alter ego, and eventually as the fully-morphed villain himself, is uncomfortably, sometimes agonizingly immersive
This movie is hardly “realistic” but, as Glenn Beck observed, of all the superhero-connected flicks of the past couple decades it’s the most realistic; making it all the more squirmy; “so drenched in its seamy milieu that you can practically feel the roaches skittering under your feet,” (Kyle Smith). For those looking for a “good time” at the movies, I wouldn’t exactly endorse Joker. “Entertaining” isn’t the first word that springs to mind to describe it. Again, Smith: It “eschews entertainment and dares to repel.” But compelling? Undeniably so.
All that said: the run-up to this film’s debut was dogged by controversy, and that hasn’t much changed now that it’s flickering on multi-plexes everywhere. Is Joker an irresponsibly pro-violence right-wing screed which will inspire psychotics to shoot up movie theaters and shopping malls? Or a cinematic polemic — worthy of Antifa or Occupy Wall Street — against the wealthy and powerful? Or is it both? Or neither?
The informed and honest answer has to be a bit of a mixed bag. There are nods, true enough, to the blood-curdling consequences of inadequately financed health care — particularly mental health care. And Joker hardly provides a beaming paean to gun-ownership. Thomas Wayne — rich white-guy — comes off a cynical, pompous bully-elitist.
Still, as NR‘s Smith puts it:
[Fleck/Joker] leads a revolution of the greasepaint underclass against the 1 percenters, channeling the eat-the-rich mindset of Bane and Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. If he’s the hero, and we’re cheering for him, then we must take some satisfaction in seeing his clown proletariat rise up. That isn’t right-wing or conservative, that’s positively Jacobinic.
I came away from Joker with my own glum impression: Probably unintentionally, Phillips and Co. have conveyed a warning to “right wing or conservative” audience members; those socially active traditionalist or Christian, small government constitutionalist types — at least for those with ears to hear, eyes to see. And it’s a desperately needed caution in this fraught political age.
Arthur Fleck becomes “Joker” — an insane, homicidal monster — because he makes a fateful and spiritually fatal decision: he loathes the evil surging and raging around him, but in the process of resenting it he allows it to co-opt him; to shape him into becoming like it. Although lamenting everyone’s awfulness — and there is close to nobody in Joker to admire or even feel sympathy for — Phoenix’s loser becomes awful himself. “Nobody’s civil anymore,” he grouses at one point; then becomes the ultimate embodiment of incivility.
By the time Joker‘s 122 minutes have wrapped, it’s been made clear that’s no way to confront a damaged world populated by damaged people. If, in objecting to and resisting ugliness and depravity one yields to same, becomes like them, what’s been gained and where does that inevitably lead? Nihilism? Despair? Chaos? If Joker is any indication, the end result of such a surrender will eventually be all of those grim outcomes; and worse.
“I believe in nothing!” the future “Clowned Prince of Crime” announces grandiloquently to a TV audience, just before enacting his most brazenly murderous act; which launches an anarchic wave of brutal, city-wide mayhem.
There’s a lot of indignant tub-thumping in conservative and even “Christian Right” circles these days of having done with “decency” and “honor” in our political and cultural engagements. We’ve tried that! It didn’t work! Those are the attitudes of “losers,” we’re scolded by those who once clung to a standard beyond mere pragmatism. Leftists and Progressives don’t play by the rules — neither should we any longer, snipe those who condemned moral relativism until the day before yesterday, yet currently demand elected leaders and ideological spokesmen who don’t just destroy dangerous ideas, but aim to personally destroy those who espouse them.
A couple centuries back, one noteworthy Christian, someone who’d certainly be considered a “right-winger” today and who resisted a lot of wickedness and changed history in the process, counseled, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17)
I don’t know if Arthur Fleck ever read the New Testament. There are no Bibles in Joker, no churches, no ministers – which is too bad for him. They might have helped Fleck find a better way. Gotham – and presumably Batman – might have had one less fiend to contend with.
Two gangs of Jokers at each other’s throats won’t save America.
Image: Adapted from: Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60399334