Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in 2019

Joker is a cautionary tale for us all

Critics Score: 69% Audience Score: 88%, IMDb: 8.7

Is a great movie one that is universally liked or one that is highly polarizing, spawning various opinions and critiques? It could be one or the other, but most people would easily deride a film that doesn’t form a consensus, one like Joker that creates a mixed bag of emotions. Certain factions of the moviegoing audience, which include both critics and general viewers, see the film as being problematic. It’s nihilistic, bleak, and cynical, they say. Some wondered if this Warner Brothers entry is the catalyst for criminal behavior, spurring an unhinged man or woman to take their anger and frustration out on society, much like Joaquin Phoenix’s character does as the clown prince of Gotham.

More often than not, I see myself as cynical and pessimistic, seeing the worst in a situation. The glass wasn’t half empty. It was shattered into pieces. I’ve been working on this flawed thought pattern over the last year, but my general mode of thinking remains the same. Given that, I could easily have understood Joker as a dangerous piece of moviemaking, one devoid of hope, optimism, or positivity. I mean, it’s an origin story for a madman so can there even be a silver lining? Was it foolish for critics and audiences to expect anything of the sort? This is the birth of the Joker, not a children’s character in a Disney movie. Nihilism seems par for the course with this film, but I was left feeling something entirely different. Yes, sadness, but also empathy and a need to be better. Joker is a cautionary tale and one that’s a call to action.

Arthur Fleck is a zombie moving about in Gotham. Unnoticed, unloved, and uncared for. He’s the piece of gum stuck at the bottom of your shoe or that scratch mark on your floor tile. It exists, but you wish it didn’t. He’s the butt of most jokes as a clown for hire, whether that’s his coworkers or random passersby on the streets. Even his city-appointed therapist is indifferent to his condition, serving hollow questions and platitudes to occupy their sessions. Arthur’s a man plagued by mental illness and very few resources to alleviate the situation. His therapist doesn’t care about him. His city doesn’t either.

The only solace in his life happens to be his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). When he trudges back home up those iconic set of steps, there’s a unity in their crumbling apartment. They watch Murray Franklin’s talk show together. They bicker, and they dance. They look after each other when no one else would. Simultaneously, Arthur finds comfort in his imagination, cooking up fantasies of appearing on the Murray Franklin show and falling in love with his neighbor, a single mother named Sophie (Zazie Beetz). These are his refuges from an increasingly hostile world, until he loses his job.

He gets caught bringing a gun to a children’s hospital, one gifted to him by Randall (Glenn Fleshler), a fellow clown who was looking to offload a weapon. On his way back home on the Gotham subway, we get the first glimpse of the clown prince’s making. Three drunk yuppies harass a young woman before setting their sights on Arthur, who laughs uncontrollably due to his condition. The woman flees, leaving Arthur stranded with the three men. Unable to understand him, they beat him to the ground and kick him violently. That’s until he pulls out the gun that was his misfortune. Not anymore. Two quick kills. And a slower one for the third. It rings a few similarities with the 1984 shootings on the NY subway by Bernhard Goetz. Though race was a central focus in the aftermath of that shooting, in the fictional Gotham the battle lines are drawn around wealth and class.

What starts as an act of self-defense surely morphs into something a little more punitive and vengeful. Arthur isn’t conservative with his bullets. He empties the barrel on the third victim, making sure the young man is as immobile as a scarecrow. Gotham’s reaction follows a similar vein. While polite society mourns the deaths of three promising young men, the poor rejoice, reveling in the uproar among the elites, including one Thomas Wayne mounting a mayoral campaign in the city. There’s a feeling in the lower rungs of Gotham that it’s about time. It’s about time that the rich paid for exploiting the poor and the serving class. It’s about time the rich noticed that their hoarding of wealth is unacceptable. So when Thomas Wayne dismisses the clown killer as a coward and labels the less fortunate who’re supportive of the murders as clowns who couldn’t make something of their lives, a movement begins. The clown becomes the symbol of the oppressed. The clown becomes a middle finger to the suits and dresses, the Thomas Waynes of the world.

Unfortunately, Joker is a reflection of our broken society. The flaws of Gotham are those we can witness every day in our towns and cities. Look around you and it’s easy to find entire populations that feel disenfranchised and misunderstood. In Gotham, social services funding gets cut, leaving a mentally ill man such as Arthur abandoned. Not too different from our world today. In Gotham, the deaths of three educated men are sensationalized while the tragedies of the underprivileged are brushed aside. Not too different from our world today. In Gotham, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Not too different now, is it?

Eventually, something has to give, and in Gotham, it does. Arthur’s descent into madness coincides with that of the city. First, he finds out that he might be Thomas Wayne’s son. His mother used to work at Wayne manor and had an alleged affair with the billionaire. When he confronts Wayne, a different narrative emerges. One of a troubled employee who allowed her adopted son to grow up in an abusive household. A visit to Arkham Asylum dismantles the lies she told her son. Maybe Wayne had her locked up to keep her quiet or maybe she was ill. Either way, Arthur believes the latter, and smothers his mother with a pillow, taking his second life. The third comes in the form of Randall, who visits Arthur to talk about his gun and the subway murders. The police are scrutinizing the clowns a little closely for obvious reasons, and Randall doesn’t want to be in the cops’ orbit for anything. Arthur snaps, killing Randall in gruesome fashion. One by one, Arthur punishes those who lied to him, exploited him, abused him, and laughed at him.  

The momentous finale comes on the Murray Franklin show. Arthur gets invited when one of his standup bits at a local tavern gets played on the talk show. Not for how good it is, but how bad. The TV audience laughs at him. Arthur’s primetime debut doesn’t go any differently, until he confesses to the subway murders and turns the interview on its head. Or Murray’s head. He shoots Murray point-blank, televising the trial and conviction of Gotham’s wealthy. More than that, the killing comes right after a surprising moment of clarity.

Arthur calls Murray out for being evil. For bringing him on the show to ridicule. For a few laughs at the expense of someone who’s mentally ill. For much of the film, Arthur’s hardly on the same wavelength as anyone else, sometimes even being at odds with his mother. It seemed like he didn’t know if he was welcome, accepted, mocked, or laughed at. His awareness was close to nil. Not here. He knows exactly what’s happening. He knows he’s being used, and he punches back. Just as he retaliates, the city does the same and riots break out. People have had enough and the pressure cooker explodes. Anarchy rules the streets.

During desperate times, we can easily be misguided, turning to the wrong people for the wrong answers. The political climate around the world is evidence of this. This leads to more radical reactions as pent up fury is released explosively. In Joker, Arthur Fleck becomes the de facto leader of a grassroots movement, one challenging the status quo and the powerbrokers with a dangerous message: kill the rich.

If it can happen in Gotham it can happen here, there, and everywhere. And it has happened in the past, where societies implode from within, cannibalizing themselves. People perceive an injustice, and if they’re dismissed or neglected, they act as judge, jury, and executioner. Some see Joker as a rallying cry for the criminally insane while others see it as a pointless meditation in everything wrong with the world. I see it as a cautionary tale, documenting the plight and eventual outcry of the ignored masses, so that we can act today, being more caring, compassionate, and charitable in our endeavors. If we change for the better, we could have a lot fewer Jokers around the world.

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