Maybe I’m getting old and turning into one of the scolds I detested when I was younger, but I was appalled by Joker. As I watched I could not help but think that the movie crossed some ethical line by taking the viewer inside the mind of a maniac and then graphically depicting the brutal violence he commits.
Yet perhaps Joker is thought-provoking enough to justify the brutality it depicts.
At first blush, the plot is straightforward. Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a mentally ill guy who wants to be good but is led by circumstances to embrace evil. He is failed by the institutions and people around him: If only the city government doesn’t cut mental health services, if only the women he’s infatuated with gives him the time of day, if only the smiling TV host really is fatherly and kind, if only his employer treats him fairly, if only other passengers on public transportation behave with decency — if any one of those “ifs” had become a reality, he might have been OK and functioned at some level of society.
Instead, when the injuries and insults compound and events conspire to present Fleck with the possibility of taking a darker path, he eventually cannot resist taking
Of all the misfortunes that befall Fleck, though, the biggest is the mistreatment he receives from Thomas Wayne.
Wayne, in Joker, is the obverse of what he is in Batman canon. Usually, he’s a uncomplicatedly good character: The benevolent magnate who feels personal responsibility for the welfare of Gotham.
But in Fleck’s deranged point of view — which is also the viewer’s in Joker, as every scene has Fleck in it -- Wayne’s civic-mindedness is transmuted into cynical ambition and self-regard. When, at last, Wayne decisively rejects Fleck, it’s proof of the fundamental uncaringness of the city and the world, demonstrating to Fleck that he will never be accepted as a good person and that the city deserves not redemption but a violent reckoning and chaos.
For Bruce Wayne (as we know him from all the other Batman comics and movies), of course, it’s just the opposite. The memory of the love that his parents had for him, the love of two good people who were trying to bring him up well and care for others, and the pain of their loss are what motivate him to try to save Gotham even when others believe that it is beyond saving.
Both Bruce and Arthur grow up without fathers. Arthur believes that Thomas, or at least a grim caricature of Thomas, is his dad, but he’s not. He really is Bruce’s, though.
The conflict between what Arthur believes (or appears to believe) and reality is what makes Joker difficult to interpret an worth thinking about.
It’s been suggested that the Batman of the Dark Knight trilogy is right-wing. After all, he’s a billionaire vigilante who arrogates himself vast emergency powers to put down a populist uprising.
Through the same lens, Joker would be a left-wing critique, as some left-wingers have suggested. Fleck’s descent into evil is guided along by austerity, a power structure that is coordinated to hurt poor people like him, and the lack of a safety net.
The problem with interpreting what happened to Fleck, though, is that he is an unreliable narrator at best. His interpretation of events is as distorted as if he were perceiving everything through the kind of funhouse mirror that would go along with his clown makeup.
And the very worst is a distortion of the best. Perhaps that explains why Fleck experiences Thomas Wayne’s rejection as the ultimate affront.
Joker shows a city and a world so depraved and so irredeemable that it’s almost understandable that you’d turn it over to anarchist clowns — but it does so through a lens that, as the viewer progressively learns — is badly out of focus. By the end of the movie, we’re left wondering if maybe reality is the exact opposite of what it seems.
“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it's a comedy,” Fleck says at one point. Maybe his supposedly uncontrollable laugh, which chokes him at his worst moments of humiliation and frustration, isn’t as involuntary as he claims. Maybe it’s not the spontaneous laugh of a man who’s suffered terrible neurological damage from abuse, but rather that of a monster who was determined to embrace evil all along.