Joker, 2019 (revised and revisited)

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

I’m actually writing a second review for this because the longer I’ve thought about it, the less I like it.

The questions and pieces which didn’t seem to fit initially make sense now, but not within the context of the narrative as it’s presented on screen. The narrative that’s presented on screen only makes the most superficial pass over anything that would be substance, and as much as it does an excellent job (mostly because of Joaquin Phoenix stellar performance) of making us invested in the journey of the character we’re presented with, it’s a con.

Ultimately, “Joker” is a void. It’s about nothing. It’s told by one of the most unreliable narrators in fiction history who wants nothing from us, except our attention.

If you take a step back, and look at the narrative from beginning to end, it doesn’t hold up. It holds your attention while you’re watching it, certainly. It’s compelling as you’re watching it, but the minute you start to try and dig into it further, it falls apart. It’s just disjointed pieces of a story, pasted together, and all of them are what all of us want to hear. Sure, maybe it could be interpreted as the story of the making of an incel terrorist, but it could also be interpreted just as easily as the making of a proletarian revolutionary finding his place in a movement that’s starting around him, that he had no motivation to create.

Initially, as I was thinking about it, it seemed Todd Philips and his co-writer were just attempting to be impossibly non-committal with the politics of the film, and the details of things like Arthur Peck’s mental illness. That’s not it at all though.

It’s a con. The whole thing is a con. All of it is told with just enough detail to always make Arthur/Joker seem like a kind of patsy or a poor soul driven to his acts as some combination of mental illness and the cruelty of the world it portrays. In the way the film is set up and the way it comes to its finale, there is barely even an Arthur Fleck. He’s also just a collection of different pieces of a person.

Arthur becoming Joker is almost more related to a possession story than a story in any way related to mental illness. What symptoms we’re presented in the early part of the film start to fade as Arthur becomes more and more Joker. Even the condition which gives him the uncontrollable laughter fades as he becomes Joker. It’s no longer a painful, wracking, symptom which seems like it’s going to rip him in half at any moment. These symptoms are coming from repressing Joker, so when he stops, the symptoms leave.

That’s not how mental illness works, either in real life or in fiction. One of the few things fiction does get right about mental illness is that it has always portrayed symptoms becoming more severe as a mental illness gets worse. In the case of this character, they should be getting worse instead of getting better.

But this isn’t a story about mental illness. It’s a story about Joker, and in the story Joker is telling Arthur Fleck is the possessing entity, Arthur Fleck is the mental illness, not Joker.

The key to understanding this is that the person who is narrating this story, the one whose perspective we’re being given the details through is the person who is sitting in the chair, across the table from the mental health practitioner at the end of the film. That person is telling the mental health practitioner and the audience anything he has to in order to keep the attention on himself.

Through the film, and through the story Joker is telling, attention is all there is. It’s all that matters. The politics of the film don’t matter, at all. It’s the reason they’re never actually explored in any depth. Through the story Joker tells, it’s the attention that sets him free and the attention that gives him power, and that’s exactly what he’s getting from us as the audience, and from the other characters in the movie.

That’s the con of the film. Joker has told us the entire story, and all he wants is our attention, so he tells us what he knows we want to hear, what he knows will hold our attention. Considering what we do know about the character’s history, it’s exactly the kind of thing he would do, for his own amusement. Tell a story with no meaning, no sense of moral center, nothing, but just enough to keep us paying attention.

It certainly makes for an interesting narrative trick, but it’s also nothing but a kind of masturbatory exercise on the part of Philips and his cowriter. All of it is meant to do exactly what it does do, get attention and say nothing. It’s a waste of time and waste of resources, not the least of which is Joaquin Phoenix and the not inconsiderable cost of making the film.

Because it is really a story told by it’s title character, it’s a dick move, and the film makers should have thought better than to stroke their egos with topics that are as controversial and consequential as those the film uses to commit it’s con job.

Tired, weary human. Excavating the geography between trauma, masculinity, mental health, and their social expressions. Anti-racist, anti-sexist. Learning.

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