Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)

While it is that time of year to bundle up under the beloved Afghan and not leave the house for any reason other than to answer the call of Barnabas, I went to the movie theater recently and saw a film that has actually motivated me to write, albeit it is now more than a month later and I am just now taking the necessary steps to do so. (#miracles) 

Joker is not your typical comic book movie. 

Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a young man who suffers from mental illness. He lives with his aging, disoriented mother, and he works as a clown in various capacities. We first see him as a dancing clown advertising the close of a shop and that “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” A group of cruel, bored young men grab Arthur’s sign; the chase ends in an alley, Arthur on the hard ground, legs kicking his bony body from all directions and with force. His boss later chides him for not returning the sign; a co-worker, noting his bruised body, gifts Arthur with a gun. 

At home, Arthur cares for his mother, who repeatedly writes letters to Thomas Wayne, whom she used to work for before Arthur was born. Arthur opens an empty mail box, bathes his mother, and prepares her dinner. Together, they watch The Murray Franklin Show, and we get a glimpse of Arthur’s mental state, as he imagines he is at the filming of a show and recognized by Franklin as an audience member. Arthur dreams of becoming a comedian. “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” his mother innocently, although quite cruelly, wonders aloud. 

Arthur attends therapy, but he truly finds reprieve from the bleak, cruel world around him in these delusions and music (and often the two mix). He seems to be able to escape and fully express himself as he dances. One night, with the 1937 Astaire-Rogers film Shall We Dance playing in the background, Arthur dances, gun in hand above his head. Shirtless, exposing his bony frame, his confidence and joy is evident as he body moves to the rhythm of the music. He enters a delusion again, beginning a conversation with himself. 

“Hey, what’s your name?” 

“Arthur.” 

“Hey, Arthur, you’re a really good dancer.”

“I know,” he answers coyly, before adding, “You know who’s not? Him.”

He turns the gun toward the imaginary him and fires a bullet into the wall. Alarmed and exhilarated, Arthur’s transformation into another being has begun. 

“The world is in a mess/with politics and taxes/and people grinding axes/there’s no happiness.” (“Slap That Bass”)

He carries his gun with him to work, even when his job is to entertain sick children at a hospital. Stupidly, the gun falls out of his pant leg, and he is promptly fired. “It was part of my act, it’s a prop,” he desperately explains to his boss in a pay-phone booth. “I really like this job,” he pleads, but to no avail. 

He dejectedly boards the subway. Three men in suits harass a young woman; Arthur laughs uncontrollably. (He carries with him a card that reads: “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition (more on back).” Back: ”It’s a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, uncontrollable laughter that doesn’t match how you feel. It can happen in people with a brain injury or certain neurological conditions.”) The men move in on Arthur, baiting him and singing (badly) “Send in the Clowns.” 

Viewing this abuse, I want to cover my eyes. How much more cruelty does this guy have to endure? Everything about him is so pitiful, right down to the oversized old lady pajamas he wears around the apartment. When does he finally become The Joker and take these jerks out? 

Well, you know what they say: Be careful what you wish for. 

Bang, bang, bang. Having committed his first murders, Arthur retreats to a grimy public bathroom where once again he joyfully expresses his emotions through dance. 

Now able to spend his days at home, Arthur’s mother instructs him to mail yet another letter to Thomas Wayne. Arthur discreetly opens the letter and discovers that he is the result of his mother’s love affair with Thomas Wayne. Wanting to meet his father, he visits the Wayne mansion where he briefly meets a young Bruce Wayne. He is warned to never visit there again, but unable to resist confronting his father, follows Thomas Wayne into the bathroom at a ritzy event. When Arthur tells Wayne he knows the truth, Wayne laughs in his face, discrediting his mother’s tale because of her own mental illness. 

Unsure of the truth, Arthur returns home one night to find she has had an attack after being questioned by detectives about his possible involvement in the subway murders. She lies in a hospital bed as Arthur works to determine who is telling him the truth—his mother or Thomas Wayne, eventually stealing his mother’s file from the local mental institution. The file reveals that she suffered from delusions and allowed her adopted son to be abused by her boyfriend. Angered and hurt by the one person he should be able to trust to care and love him unfailingly, Arthur visits his mother in her hospital room one final time. 

Meanwhile, Arthur continues his pursuit of a career in stand-up comedy, and his mental health services have been discontinued because of cuts in funding. (“They don’t care about people like you and me,” his therapist informs him.)  Arthur’s pitiful performance is seen by his hero, Murray Franklin. The show invites Arthur to be a guest, and he, of course, agrees, while it is unclear if Arthur is aware that he himself is the joke to be laughed at. 

Before his appearance on The Murray Franklin Show, two of Arthur’s former co-workers stop by his apartment to see how he is doing after his mother’s death. One is the man who originally gave Arthur the gun to defend himself; the other is a midget who, in Arthur’s words, was the only person who was ever nice to him. Only one of them makes it out of Arthur’s apartment alive. (Five to one, baby, one in five. No one here gets out alive. Was that song in the superb soundtrack? I can’t remember.) 

Arthur descends the stairs to the tune of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” and flees into a subway crowd of people dressed like The Joker for a political protest as the detectives chase him. (The Subway Murders have inspired the community to protest the wealthy and privileged establishment, all while dressed as clowns.) 

He finally arrives at the studio for The Murray Franklin Show. Franklin meets briefly with Arthur and is kind to him, while Franklin’s producer advises him not to do the segment. Franklin insists it’s going to be great. Arthur requests that Franklin introduce him as “Joker,” which Franklin obliges. 

Having practiced his introduction tirelessly (Arthur has seemingly taped every episode of the show, ever), Arthur’s entrance is well-received, and he has a polite conversation with Franklin about comedy and political protests (“I’m not political,” he insists) before asking to tell a joke. 

“Knock knock,” Arthur begins. 

“Who’s there?” 

“It’s the police, ma’am! Your son’s been hit by a drunk driver. He’s dead!” 

Franklin proceeds to tell Joker that his joke is not funny. They discuss the subjective nature of comedy, and Arthur admits to the subway murders, adding that no one would care if he had been the victim. It is only because of their wealth and privilege that their deaths are mourned. He turns on Murray, telling him that he is no different than the rest of them—he only invited Arthur onto his show to laugh at him. The atmosphere is tense and can only end badly. 

“How ‘bout another joke, Murray?” Joker asks. 

“No,  I think we’ve had enough of your jokes,” Franklin states firmly. 

“What do you get…” 

I don’t think so.”

…when you cross…”

I think we’re done here now, thank you.” 

…a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”

Call the police, Gene, call the police.”

I’ll tell you what you get!” Joker declares gleefully. “You get what you fuckin’ deserve!” 

And then he shoots Murray in the head, killing him instantly—on air. 

To the sound of “White Room” by Cream, Joker watches the riots he has inspired from the backseat of a police car. (“Do I look like the kind of clown that can start a movement?” he had asked Murray Franklin. Apparently so.) Chaos abounds and a man shoots a wealthy couple as they leave the theater, their young son watching. 

“The whole city’s on fire because of you,” a police officer informs Joker. 

“I know. Isn’t it beautiful?” he replies. Because, for Joker, the chaos and destruction make more sense than the cruelty and banality of everyday life. 

I’ll sleep in this place with the lonely crowd
Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves 

Joker is a film about mental illness. Joker is a film about treating other people how you would like to be treated. Joker is a film about a man who spirals when he cannot make sense of the cruelty of the world around him. And in the words of actor Joquain Phoenix (who deserves an Oscar, no questions asked), “We’re making a movie about a fictional character in a fictional world, ultimately, and your hope is that people take it for what it is. You can’t blame movies for a world that is so f—ed up that anything can trigger it. That’s kind of what the movie is about. It’s not a call to action. If anything it’s a call to self-reflection to society.”

So, as Joker once again dances off-screen to Sinatra’s “That’s Life” in the film’s final scene, we are left to ponder whether it really has to be that way—and hopefully do something about it.