Sunday, December 22, 2019

"Joker": review

[NB: some spoilers, but the climax/crescendo is left un-spoiled.]

The ghostly influence of Alan Moore and Frank Miller is evident in 2019's "Joker," which is something of a stand-alone film that is kind-of set in the Batman universe. "Joker" is directed by "The Hangover" helmer Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the screenplay. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a shy, mentally ill man who gets by in Gotham City working as a not-very-successful sign-twirling clown. Fleck takes care of his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who claims to have worked for Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, looking burly and surly) years ago, and who constantly writes Wayne letters asking the billionaire for help. Arthur, who gets mugged and has his "Everything Must Go!" sign stolen by some nasty kids, likes to come home to his and Penny's grimy apartment and watch the "Live with Murray Franklin" show. Franklin (Robert De Niro), an analogue for Carson and other late-night hosts, is an inspiration to Arthur, who wants to become a successful standup comedian.

But Arthur has problems. He's mentally unstable and, having recently been released from Arkham Aslyum, is on meds and seeing a city-appointed counselor. Arthur laughs at inappropriate moments, and while he seems detached and unempathetic when it comes to his interactions with other people, he's socially aware enough to realize that his laughter causes discomfort. This realization prompts him to apologize while he's cackling, coughing, hitching, and hiccuping; when he remembers to do so, he hands the offended people around him little laminated cards that explain, in small print, that he has a condition, possibly neurological, that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. In cold, squalid Gotham, most people have little or no sympathy for Arthur. Most people barely acknowledge his existence.

At Arthur's place of work, a grungy studio where professional clowns don their makeup and wacky clothes and prep for their various gigs, a seemingly compassionate coworker named Randall gives Arthur a gun after he professes sympathy following Arthur's mugging. While it's hard to say what moment, exactly, might be the crucial moment when meek, emotionally fragile Arthur Fleck begins to transform into the mass-murdering Joker of legend, this moment—the receiving of the gun—is a good candidate.

"Joker" is an origin story that has echoes of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, a graphic novel that has, by now, attained legendary status among comics fans. In Moore's story, the unnamed man who becomes the Joker tries to support his family through standup comedy, but he's a failure. In the movie, Penny asks her son how he could choose a life of standup comedy: aren't comedians supposed to be funny?

The transition takes place slowly, by degrees. It's a bit like watching an addict's progression, in phases, from a gateway drug to the harder stuff. Arthur gets the gun, and it's not long before he's waving it around in his apartment and accidentally firing it, terrifying himself, his mother, and possibly the neighbors in the building across the way. Not long after that, the gun gets used in self-defense to stop a subway assault, and by the end of the story, the gun has become Chekov's gun in full as it's used in the commission of a very public murder.

A good bit of controversy surrounded this movie, both from the left and from the right, fairly early on. Director Todd Phillips felt that much of the criticism of the movie came from the "far left" and from "woke" culture. Concerns were expressed that the film, which shows a marginal individual's eventual embrace of violence and murder as a way of lashing out at society, might inspire actual shootings. These fears proved unfounded, as has been the case with most moral-panic fears about cultural phenomena like Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, and violent video games. Some people critical of the film felt it offered too compassionate a portrayal of the Joker, who arguably comes off as a figure of pity—someone who understandably goes off the deep end because of (as Alan Moore puts it in his version of the Joker's origin story) one bad day. I'm actually glad there was a controversy: "Joker" is, if nothing else, an issues movie, and there are plenty of issues to discuss, from the marginalization of the mentally ill to the cutting-off of government services for them to the question of whether insanity is an excuse for deadly violence. It could be said that, in this movie, the Joker's victims all deserve what they get. Almost every single person killed by Arthur Fleck (and the body count in this film is fairly low) has it coming, with the exception of one seeming sacrificial lamb at the very end of the film—someone who is apparently murdered off-screen.

And this is what distinguishes Joaquin Phoenix's Joker from, say, Heath Ledger's. Heath Ledger's Joker is somewhat akin to a cosmic force, a preternatural, even demonic, being who puts together complex plots with the sole purpose of forcing people to maim and kill each other. Ledger's Joker does this because he rebels against the very existence of any sort of social fabric or social order; "I'm an agent of chaos," he claims, although I've argued that Ledger's Joker is, ironically, anything but chaotic in nature. Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is simply trying to survive, to be recognized as a fellow human being, to be—if anything—accepted into the social fabric. When this doesn't happen, when Fleck suffers rejection after rejection and has a whole series of one bad days, he turns rabid. When the Joker commits his very public murder near the end of the film—a moment that evokes Frank Miller's David Endochrine scene in Part 3 of The Dark Knight Returns—he tells his victim that he's going to "get what [he] fucking deserves." This Joker, then, uses the language of justice to validate his killings. He cherishes the chaos that results from this murder, but he also sees the murder as a way to bring the scales back into balance. Perhaps there's a parallel with Ledger's Joker after all, for that Joker observes, "Oh, and you know the thing about chaos: it's fair."

Phoenix's Joker isn't a god, demon, trickster, or anything so cosmic. He's not an expert with chemicals or a clever strategist. Socially and sexually awkward, suicidal, and possibly autistic, he's also not a witty, Mark Hamill-style font of clever one-liners. He is quintessentially human—a stumbling, wounded soul who has gone from wanting acceptance to repudiating the world. As I wrote earlier, the Joker becomes the Joker in a series of steps, and it's a small step from taking vigilante-style revenge on the guilty to killing the guiltless as well the as guilty. This is why the final scene of the movie is so important: those bloody footprints in the sterile Arkham hallway, which suggest the shedding of innocent blood, pave the way for the Joker we've all come to know, love, and fear: a killer of the sinless and the sinful alike.

Whether you cleave to this interpretation of the Joker is very much a matter of personal preference. I'm still not happy to have this level of specificity about the Joker's origins, but then again, the movie does much to show that Arthur Fleck is clinically delusional, thus making him an unreliable narrator. While some critics have claimed that certain plot points are clear revelations of this or that aspect of the Joker, I'm not so sure. The movie teases us, for example, with the idea that Penny Fleck—Arthur's mom—had an affair with Thomas Wayne, and Arthur was the result of that affair, thus making him Bruce Wayne's half-brother. (We meet a very young Bruce in a scene where Arthur tries to visit the Wayne residence to speak with Thomas about his mother.) Arthur steals some documents from Arkham (where Penny had also been institutionalized for paranoid delusions and child endangerment) that would seem to indicate that Penny had actually adopted Arthur—something that Thomas Wayne himself also says. But we, the viewers, no longer really know what or whom to believe. Both Penny and Arthur are congenitally delusional; is this because they actually are related? And does that mean that the scene in which Arthur is looking at his mother's file is a false memory? A person could go nuts trying to figure out the concrete truth. It's the viewer's choice, in piecing together Arthur's tortured past, to accept this or that piece of information as real or not. This creates a discomfiting sense of ambiguity, an ambiguity that seems to parallel both Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke regarding the question of a past that is multiple-choice. (You'll recall that, in Nolan's film, the Joker tells two different stories about how he got his facial scars.)

"Joker" is an excellent film, in my opinion, but some critics have noted that it rips off the story beats of Scorsese films like "Taxi Driver" and "King of Comedy"—neither of which I've seen as of this writing, making it impossible for me to confirm this contention. Then again, what some would call "ripping off" others would call "paying homage to." Phillips and Phoenix have crafted a provocative work that has, if nothing else, caused me to think long and hard about it. Elements of the movie certainly parallel other works in the DC Comics universe, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Scorsese was an influence as well. At least "Joker" has its roots in good material. It certainly stands on its own as a unique take on an iconic supervillain—brought down to size, in this version, and portrayed as a mere human in pain, lashing out in fury at his cold, cruel surroundings. Arthur Fleck doesn't tumble into a vat of acid and come out mentally altered; if anything, he's a victim of the "gravity" that Heath Ledger's Joker referred to at the end of the "The Dark Knight": all a person needs, to go from sane to mad, is a little push.

Hats off to the writer-director for creating a compelling—and occasionally scary—story. (The tensest moment in the film involves a terrified dwarf.) Hats off to the art director and cinematographer for giving us a Gotham that is probably the most depressing version of the city that I've ever seen on film. Kudos to Joaquin Phoenix for a bravura performance, and to other cast members like Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, and Leigh Gill for their memorable scenes. "Joker" isn't an epic; it's a personal drama with a narrow focus on how one person handles, or refuses to handle, his inner demons. The personal nature of the drama makes it intense; it's a story that will leave you pondering it long after you've finished watching. Recommended.

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