Joker is no joke, it’s a film for our time

Joker is no joke, it’s a film for our time

Still from the movie Joker

When a movie about an iconic comic book villain wins the Golden Lion, the biggest prize at the Venice Film Festival, you can expect it’s not a garden variety super hero movie, and Joker is certainly no standard movie. Not in any category. People have different tastes, and read things in different ways, but I’m fairly perplexed by some of the criticism by a handful of critics who have described Joker as shallow, or more bizarrely, boring. On the contrary, this film is horrifyingly mesmerising, and has extraordinary depth, and I am left wondering if those critics accidently went to the wrong film (Ad Astra perhaps, which, for all it’s beauty, impressive cast, and interesting world building, appears to be trying for a Tarkovsky vibe, and just ends up being a bit dull with all the emotional depth of a Christmas themed rom com… but I digress). While Joker is set in a 1970s Gotham City (AKA New York City), it is undoubtably a story of our time. I don’t think I have ever seen a film that has left me feeling so deeply disturbed, and that’s because it is an unrelentingly dark film, but it also has something very serious to say.

Director Todd Phillips has created a dark, grimy, graffiti covered world. Gotham city in the 70s, emulating New York of that era, but separating it from New York by using a few unusual shots – the iconic L-train films from directly overhead instead of underneath as we usually see it, a train moving away from the city along a leafy coastline. The lines might be blurry, but this is Gotham and it represents not just New York, but any other big city, anywhere in the world. There is no escape from this world, its oppressiveness, how it separates people, keeps them isolated, connected only through their growing discontent. Joaquin Phoenix embodies this discomfort, this unease, from the first second of the movie. It’s almost unbearable to watch him at times, the psychic pain of his character turned into pure physicality. I can’t describe why you should see this film any better than Michael Moore already has (see his Facebook post on the subject, it’s a compelling read), but I will say go and see it (but not if you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable, and I wouldn’t see it alone). I have a few more things to say, but that’s for the spoilers section below. 

You don’t have to be a comic book fan to see this movie, in fact if you are you may be disappointed as it doesn’t really stick to the lore of the comic books (or at least as I understand them), but do go to see this film if you’re interested in social commentary and great film making.

Going deeper… with spoilers

So the Joker is about a corrupt system, cutting services and isolating the most vulnerable while the wealthy run the show, to the point where a madman is able to rally support and create a movement that is bent on destruction… hmmm. Does this sound disturbingly familiar? Well, it should. 

There is no question this story is about today. The 70s setting, just serves to remove the distractions of smart-phones and internet and the role that now plays in a story like this. But this is not a critique of the tools of power and disruption, this is a critique of late-capitalism, slowly whittling away services and support leaving the most vulnerable to fend for themselves. Some of the more critical reviews of this film have said it’s about a man who is teased and mistreated by those around, and so goes crazy, claiming this hackneyed story is what Joker is about, but these critics are missing what is right in front of them. It’s overtly about a power structure that is corrupt and skewed towards supporting the wealthy, while neglecting the most vulnerable. 

There are several points in the film where Arthur (AKA Joker) , is told services to help him are not longer available. He is left to fend for himself. He can’t get his medication, he can’t get counselling, there’s nothing left to him. Arthur’s mother, Penny is alleged to have neglected Arthur as a child in a similar way. Penny was so fixated on her wealthy boss Thomas Wayne, who treated her so poorly, and whom she continued to defend as a ‘good man’ against all the evidence to the bitter end, leaving her child neglected and starved, left handcuffed to a radiator. An allegory for the way Gotham treats its most vulnerable citizens. And in Gotham, as in the outside world, these citizens find a voice, someone who speaks for them. In the world of Gotham City, it’s a homicidally unhinged individual, but someone they hold up as the person who stands up for them, represents them. 

Penny is revelled to have had a history in a psychiatric ward, accused of being delusional and paranoid, but there are hints that she too was the victim of a world where the rich and powerful win and everyone else loses. Arthur finds a photograph, towards the end of the film, a young Penny with some loving words on the back and initialled TW, not definitive proof, but the suggestion that Thomas Wayne had, in fact, been her lover and had had her committed to cover it up. Penny represents ordinary, everyday people. A working class woman living in poverty makes her vulnerable to the whims of those in power, but she doesn’t critique or question. She’s not part of the rebellion, but she unwittingly feeds it over years and years and years. She trusts the more powerful, looks up to them even when she is being mistreated. She doesn’t engage with the world in any serious way, she just enjoys watching her TV shows and looking at the celebrities and not thinking about anything very much. But she is just as culpable  for creating Joker and the world he rises up against. She’s culpable through her ignorance, her desire to switch off from the difficult things in life.

The thing I couldn’t work out after seeing Joker, was what the underlying subtext was. There clearly was one, but I could see two ways to read it, one being quite reactionary, and the other revolutionary, but I was missing the real message here. It’s a warning, a call to action to avoid this story, or subvert this story, a call to not let the Joker become an icon and a leader. This film is an example of how stories can be powerful, even those that seem to exist in a fantastic world with super villains and super heroes, can be so much more than just an entertainment or an interesting art piece. This film is social and political commentary at its most powerful and most accessible.