This piece should begin with a spoiler alert, but there’s nothing to spoil in this film, really — at the beginning of the movie, Joaquin Phoenix is a man named Arthur Fleck, and by the end, he’s Joker; there are murders along the way. Anyone who knows anything about Batman’s nemesis won’t be surprised by that.
What is surprising is that by the end of the movie, I found myself rooting for him.
That’s a complete 180 for me — I resisted seeing the film because I didn’t think it could be remotely interesting to see a movie about an anti-hero who simply inaugurates chaos. What’s edifying about seeing things go from bad to worse?
But the mistake here is to apply the logic of the typical superhero story that we’ve been consuming for well more than a decade now. This is a different kind of story. Joker doesn’t just overthrow a sense of order in Gotham here — he overthrows the perverted sense of order that we’ve grown comfortable with in our own lives.
Joker is the polar opposite of what we see in Thor or Ironman. Phoenix portrays the inverse of a glorified body or whip-smart mind — he’s broken and bruised and nearly emaciated. There’s no grand plot that hinges on heroic sacrifice. The stakes are relatively low here. For the most part, the audience is simply left wondering if, when, and how Arthur will kill himself. The moment he doesn’t serves as the story’s climax.
So, what makes this story tick? Why does it work? And what is it telling us?
Mental illness and the effects of abuse stand as core themes of the film, and one of the reasons Joker is resonating so deeply is because it puts the viewers inside the clown-shoes of someone who is under constant pressure to put on a smile. Arthur paints one on, day after day, and pretends to be happy when, as he admits to his mother, he’s not been happy for a single moment of his life. Keeping up appearances like that is a constant pressure that many of us can identify with.
Phoenix uses body language to communicate exceptionally well throughout the movie — it’s the reason this is one of the best performances of the year. In the first half of the film, he’s gaunt and weak, worn down and tired. He drearily climbs a mountain of hard, granite stairs every day just to get home. His body is stretched to the limit and he suffers repeated beat-downs. At times, Phoenix sucks in his stomach to reveal an empty ribcage — as though an excavator had scraped out his soul and left a skeleton wrapped in skin. Arthur is a man with a gaping hole at his center.
Things begin to change when he encounters three intoxicated Wall Street brokers on the subway. Another beat-down commences, and he pulls out a gun (which he was given illegally) and kills all three. He runs away and then, when he finds a place to hide and catch his breath, he begins to dance. It’s an oddly captivating scene.
As the story progresses and as Arthur continues to reject the logic that asks him to pretend to be happy, he dances more and more. By the end of the film, he has become Joker and we see him back on those stairs, but this time, he’s exuberant and full of vitality as he dances down them. He’s going with gravity here, going with the grain — he is fully himself. He is alive.
Against my better nature, I found myself admiring that defiance.
Every system and social structure has failed Arthur — his social-worker therapy sessions get cut, he loses access to his prescription medication, his co-workers stab him in the back, people on the street pass him by without seeing him. The government can’t even remove the trash from the curbs. Arthur is invisible because he’s a problem, and people would rather not notice or listen to him.
If you’re wealthy enough to protect yourself from the effects of this insufficiency — like the boy, Bruce Wayne, behind his protective iron gate — then there’s no problem. But if you’re on the outside, like Arthur Fleck, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Replace Arthur with a person of color facing economic exclusion, a child living in poverty, a gay person confronted with prejudice, a migrant family looking for opportunity and the same dynamics are at play. We ask people on the margins to take on an identity that keeps us comfortable, to put on a costume and play along.
Arthur has two choices: continue to try to climb those cold, hard, never-ending stairs with a fake smile painted on his face, and die a little bit every day; or rebel and reject the system that has failed him, make the smile permanent, and dance. “If this is who you want me to be,” Joker seems to be saying, “then you have to accept that my dignity and the demands of justice require me to overthrow your sense of order.”
There’s a missing character who could have changed this story, and it isn’t Batman. (In fact, Batman as a hero has been killed here before he even takes wing — we can see he’ll be relegated to defending the system that is failing people, so what reason will we have to root for him?) The missing hero here is anyone — any one, single person — who could have taken the time to see and listen to Arthur. It could have been literally anyone.
It’s a fundamental human need to be seen and heard, to be recognized. If someone had stopped to see Arthur and take his world seriously, they would have given him a footing in human dignity. That’s what we do for each other in good relationships — we hold up a mirror to one another so we can see that we are worthy of love.
Go back to that scene on the subway when everything starts to turn. Arthur is seated and the brokers approach him through blinking lights, singing “Send In The Clowns,” twisting on the poles. One removes Arthur’s wig and puts it on, himself. Who’s the clown in this scene? Is it Arthur, the mentally-ill man without social support who is caring for his dying mother? Or is it the advantaged and calloused perverts who not only ignore the weak, but abuse them for their own pleasure?
Where do we factor into that equation? Are we close to anyone who needs validation and recognition? Whom do we fail to see or hear? I can guarantee you that there are people in your community — in your neighborhood — who need their dignity acknowledged. There are people all around us who feel invisible — the systems we have in place are insufficient for their needs. Will we remain behind our gated walls? Or are we willing to overthrow the order that we’re comfortable with? When the same “Send In The Clowns” song plays during the closing credits, we have to wonder if the film is sending clowns out into the theater parking lot.
Good art pushes us to self-reflection, and it’s impossible to leave this movie without asking some hard questions. Joker is a film that holds up a mirror so we can see what we’ve become. It’s a funhouse mirror, though, so there are many different angles and many different distortions. Whether we laugh or cry depends on how closely we look, and how seriously we take what we see.
I don’t think anyone would advocate for the coronation of Joker that concludes the film — riots and violence only spawn more suffering. But it’s not a bad image for the revolution that we need in our interior lives. And that revolution can lead us to loving action for justice, the only thing that not only stops violence, but heals what causes it.
One of the lasting impressions from this movie is the constant refrain of Phoenix’s strained, compulsive laughter. It’s not easy to tell if he’s laughing or crying, which is the whole point. It perfectly captures the tension he’s stuck in. Is it a fake laugh to go along with the painted face and the image that everything is okay? Or is it a cry that acknowledges the gaping hole in his heart?
What does it sound like to you?