A man sits before a dressing-room mirror, applying clown makeup and forcing his face into a grotesque, contorted smile. This is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who like Pierrot (or perhaps Chaplin’s Little Tramp), barely conceals the deep sadness beneath his jolly get-up. He is at HaHa’s, a rent-a-clown business in downtown Gotham, preparing for a cheap gig to promote a store with a street banner (“Everything must go!”, it states, ominously).
Immediately three things leap out from this opening to Todd Phillips’ Joker: first there is the mirror, a reflective space before which Fleck will often be seen struggling to adjust his private self for a world that prefers to see a different public face; second, there is more generally the prominent place given to performance, in an edgy film where it is often difficult to distinguish underlying reality from mere acted-out entertainment; and third, there is the messy texture of the makeup, roughly smeared in its different layers all over Fleck’s face, with its multiple colours made to run and bleed by a single streaking tear. Joker will also come with heavy layerings, as we watch it too, not unlike its protagonist, stretching and straining to put a happy face on its themes of personal and political breakdown, and to convert these dark materials into our own knockabout entertainment. The results, messy and confronting, do not look pretty (although Lawrence Sher’s cinematography comes with its own dizzying, reeling beauty).
Our future ‘Joker’ is already not playing with a full deck. He has a history of institutionalisation, is on seven different kinds of medication, has regular sessions with an assigned social worker (Sharon Washington), and is required to record his feelings in a journal. He uses the same journal to scribble down jokes that are in fact just as revealing of his damaged psyche. Fleck aspires to move on from his freelance clown work to stand-up comedy, and when we see him watching his favourite comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on television and imagining (in a scenario vividly realised by Phillips) that he is not only in the live audience, but summoned up on stage by Franklin to great applause, it becomes clear for the first – but not the last – time that Fleck’s fantasies and delusions are being presented on an equal footing to everything else in the film. Phillipsplaces us centre stage in the madness, distorting our sympathies and unsettling our sense of reality.
It would be near impossible to enter Joker unaware that you are about to watch both the making and the unravelling of an iconic DC Comics villain. As aspirant Gotham mayor and former employer of Fleck’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy), the superrich industrialist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) hovers in the background along with his pearl-clutching wife Martha (Carrie Louise Putrello) and young son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), ensuring a connection between the film and the future Batman mythos from which it spins off. Yet that connection remains ambiguous, just as it is near impossible to determine this isolated and alienated figure’s precise relations to others around him, including his clown colleagues, the police, Arkham asylum and his neighbour/love interest Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Near everything that we see unfolding in this psychodrama is open to question and up for grabs – although the very worst atrocities, carefully kept offscreen, are also what we suspect may be the most difficult for Fleck to face, and therefore the most real, in this reverie of empowerment and showmanship.
In keeping with Fleck’s fracturing personality, the film too adopts multiple identities and masks. Fleck is a suicidal depressive living with his mother, much like Phoenix’s character in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017). Fleck’s unhinged desire for celebrity on the comedy circuit, and the way in which his very unsuitability to the rôle will eventually win him a cult status (of sorts), clearly riffs on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) – whose demented lead Rupert Pupkin was played by De Niro. De Niro’s presence also points to an earlier Scorsese intertext, Taxi Driver (1976), in which the actor’s Travis Bickle, when he wasn’t engaging in armed arguments with his own shadow, found his mental decline intersecting in an entirely irrational manner with a metropolitan political campaign. Likewise Fleck’s motives for pursuing the Wayne family are entirely personal, even if he keeps travelling parallel paths with a more politicised movement against the industrialist. Joker is like James McTeigue’s V For Vendetta (2005), only with an unstable manchild rather than a literate revolutionary as the inspiration for civil unrest. It is like Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), only (maybe) on the side of the mob. Joker is the story about a search for fatherly approval (whether from Franklin or Wayne) in a patriarchy gone putrescent; or about learning not to be ashamed to dance in public; or about the deleterious, downward-leading nexus of cause and effect when a society favours its rich while disinvesting in public services.
Fleck’s decline coincides with a time of great societal crisis. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”, he asks his social worker, in a perfect articulation of the film’s binary mode of storytelling. For Joker is concerned equally with its protagonist’s interiority and with the external world beyond, even if the viewer, along with Fleck himself, cannot always be sure where the one ends and the other begins. Here, Fleck’s mental illness is both metaphor and symptom of broader problems outside, forming an ugly reflection of gaping inequalities in both a fantasy Gotham and an all-too-real America (with less and less of a safety net for the 99%). Fleck is a mad antihero for a mad world, striking a chord, however unwittingly, with the disgruntled, the downtrodden and the disaffected around him – and the degree to which he attracts or repels the viewer is a measure of just how similar or different we perceive Gotham as being to the moral, social and political circumstances in which we find ourselves today.
You can certainly see signs of our present reality in this comic book dystopia. Look carefully at the first protest group which Fleck does not so much join as happen to walk through, and you will note that the demonstrators, dressed in clown masks, are carrying an effigy of Trump. Scrutinise the headlines of the Gotham tabloids and you will discern a reference to Wall Street. The demonstrators all wear clown masks, in what is a complicated appropriative response as much to Wayne’s on-air characterisation of them as ‘clowns’ as to the recent incident in the subway where a clown murdered three white-collar workers (whom Wayne considers part of his corporate ‘family’). If these masked men on the street represent Fleck’s ‘army’ of chaotic agitators, they have only the most oblique connection to him, and their trajectories collide with his almost entirely by accident. Fleck’s makeup, his bizarre behaviour, his anonymity, all make him a convenient avatar of exclusion and a galvanising figure (if nothing more than a figure) for those who have been deemed society’s dispossessed ‘losers’. Like the Guy Fawkes’ mask appropriated from V for Vendetta by both the Occupy movement and online disruptors Anonymous, or like the Pepe the Frog meme adopted alike by 4Chan users, the alt-right and Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protestors, Fleck’s clown image becomes a rallying point of generalised resistance to the system and the status quo – even if those who borrow it never have any idea who Fleck really is, or what drives him.
As viewers, we have a better idea of this, even if Fleck’s unreliable perspective obscures our impression of him. Fleck comes with a dual nature, as slippery as a superrat. On the one hand, as a victim of horrific domestic dysfunction, of cruel ridicule and physical bullying, of economic cutbacks and state neglect, he is a living, breathing cry for help (and love) that never seems to be heeded, and certainly deserves our sympathy; on the other, he is a cold-blooded killer, whose violent deeds escalate quickly from being motivated by self-defence or at least revenge to something far more straightforwardly arbitrary and beyond reason (or indeed the pale). No matter whether these murders are real or mere wish-fulfilment delusion, our own response to them as viewers serves as a mirror to who we are behind the masks that we wear.
Meanwhile Fleck’s eagerness to appear on television, his narcissism (marked by all those mirrors and acts of masturbatory solipsism), his anti-establishment schtick, his connections (however tenuous) to a family fortune built on real estate and, of course, his aggressive volatility, all make him very much a man for the Trumpian age. His are the delusions of the moment – which is what makes Joker such an uncomfortable, accusatory character study, as it catches us on one side or another of Fleck’s misplaced laughter, and tries to get us all to dance to his bloody steps.
© Anton Bitel