People have been saying a lot of things about “Joker” — that it’s pretentious, that it might inspire someone to do a mass shooting, that an American city during that time period would have mercury-vapor lighting instead of sodium-vapor so there would be more blueish light instead of yellow.
None of that matters, because it is a lovely film about the dangers of gaslighting and pursuing a career in standup comedy.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips (who made “Old School” and “The Hangover” movies), “Joker” is perhaps the only good comic book movie. There’s no stupid training montages, no science experiments gone wrong. Just a man with fantastic hair and severe mental illness going about his day.
You’re all probably familiar with the character of the Joker, the star of the Batman comics who fights to subvert the power of an oppressive billionaire who coordinates with police to carry out extrajudicial killings throughout the city. The Joker simply will not stand for this, so he uses his devilish charm and whimsical explosives in an attempt to bring equality to Gotham.
Does he always go about it in the right way? Probably not. Does everything he do make sense? Nope. Does he sometimes kill innocent people? Sure.
That’s why it’s important that we finally learn his backstory, to understand the method to his madness.
Turns out there’s no method to his madness, just lots of internal conflict.
The film follows Arthur, a deeply depressed party clown who lives with his mother and really doesn’t have anything going for him, as he slowly finds inner peace and embraces the Joker persona.
Life is particularly tough for Arthur, because not only is he an inherently unfunny person working as a clown, but people also seem to just beat him up all the time. His mother is needy, his coworkers are mean to him, the program he’s using to get psychiatric help after leaving the asylum is cut, and he’s very bad at comedy.
He’s really just not having a great time.
Then his coworker gives him a gun. It gets him fired from his clown job, because he drops it while doing a dance at a children’s hospital. Not good. But on his way home, when a group of finance bros start punching him on the subway, he finally snaps and shoots all three. Despite nothing in his attitude or behavior really changing, he escapes a beating and does three murders, just because he now has a gun.
The killings take a life of their own, as the three dead guys worked for Wayne Enterprises, Inc. so Bruce Wayne’s dad and the newspeople are all aflutter. The people of Gotham, however, have a different reaction, leaping to defend their new hero, starting riots throughout the city and raising the anonymous killer clown to hero status as a vigilante standing up for the rights of the working class.
This all has quite an effect on poor Arthur, who went from being one of the least important people in the city to the No. 1 news item. And he perhaps gets a bit addicted to violence, smothering his mother, who at this point has told him that Thomas Wayne is his father. He also stabbs his old coworker — who previously bullied him —in the neck with a pair of scissors.
Which leads us to the climactic scene, where Arthur is invited to The Murray Franklin Show, hosted by his personal hero, where they plan to make fun of him for being bad at comedy. His failures in life, love and standup are weighing down on him, so he plans to lead with a joke, saying, “Knock, knock,” then killing himself when someone answered, “Who’s there?”
Instead, he takes a different route. He confesses to the subway killings, berates Murray Franklin for taking advantage of him, then ends with a new joke — “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”
The answer seems to be one murdered TV host.
Killing Murray Franklin on live television gives Arthur joy for the first time in his life, making him fall in love with performative murder before our very eyes. And no matter what your thoughts are on his whole deal, you have to admit there’s something beautiful about watching someone find his calling.
The film ends with Arthur locked up in an asylum, speaking to a therapist. It shows him cackling to himself, then cuts to him dancing alone down a stark white hallway, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in his wake.
So here’s the problem with all this — Arthur proves himself very early on to be an unreliable narrator, prone to deeply visual fantasies featuring everything from Murray Franklin bringing him on stage for an embrace to a romantic relationship with his pretty neighbor. Which means everything else that happens could also be fantasy. Or just some of it, or none of it at all.
Is Bruce Wayne actually his brother? Did he ever leave the asylum in the first place? What about his pretty neighbor and her daughter — did he kill them too?
I’m going to go ahead and say no, yes and no.
Arthur’s mother suffers from delusions similar to his own, so I don’t know that we can really trust what she has to say.
And since we already know that the Joker plays a prominent role in Batman’s future, it wouldn’t make much sense if he were just locked away the whole time, thinking about doing violence. He needs a backstory just as much as any other hero, and showing the beginning of his transformation into a supercriminal just to have it all be a fantasy would be dumb.
Another dumb thing would be Arthur murdering his neighbors. He doesn’t really kill people who don’t do anything to him. He spares the coworker who was nice to him, he doesn’t kill a young Bruce Wayne, and he leaves the other guests on The Murray Franklin Show alone. So why would he just all of a sudden kill the neighbors who have been nothing but nice to him?
Either way, the viewer is left with more questions than answers, and that, at the end of the day, is the Joker’s Trick.
Rating: Either 7 out of 7 or 7 out of 9, because if Arthur actually killed his pretty neighbor and her daughter that’s going to cost him a few points.