You Won’t Get It

Political polarization poisons everything. With us or against us. Us or them. Good films are no longer complex narratives with nuanced characters; they are statements. And if they do not state the correct position according to my preferences, they are bad. Instead of judging a film by its merits as film, it is now judged according to whether it says the Right Thing.

That sort of polarization narrows rather than expands one’s vision. And it makes—in this case—entertainment more important than it is. Neither politics nor entertainment ought to occupy the foremost place in our minds and hearts. They are means, not goals. We may disagree about the ends for which they are means, but they cannot be ends in themselves without distorting everything else.

It is fascinating to watch the polarization play out with regard to a film. Occasionally we see the divide between critics and audiences. But it is more interesting when the divide appears among critics who watch movies professionally. Just a brief glance at the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ scores of Joker shows the scores are, more or less, split evenly between high and low scores (or “fresh” and “rotten”). My thought is, Joker is neither as bad as the worst reviews nor as good as the best reviews.

It is a good movie. This is owed mainly to Joaquin Phoenix. More than any other actor, he is a master (no pun intended) at manipulating his physical presence to become a character. He is Arthur Fleck. That is not to degrade the rest of the actors. But as good as they are, they are stars to Phoenix’s sun. One reviewer wrote how Phoenix seemed undirected and was simply drawing one thing after another out of his actor’s bag of tricks. But this does not give him enough credit for the way he inhabits the role. He is definitive.

Of course, there is a character study and then there is an entire narrative. That seems to be the main point at which the critics diverge. Is the narrative sufficient or is the movie simply kept afloat by Phoenix’s acting? Is the film too derivative of Todd Phillips’ stated influences, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (I think Death Wish [1974] is aesthetically similar, as well)? Is there anything beneath the surface?

When I have tried to trace out a particular theme or point of view, I find it is hard to trace any of them to the end—which might support the perspective that there is nothing really there. On the other hand, is this not what makes the Joker hard to pin down? In Heath Ledger’s version, The Dark Knight, he gives different people different stories about how he got the scars on his face. Is it because there is nothing there, or because he simply does whatever he wants? He does not care what anybody thinks, and he will use their preconceptions against them as he deems it necessary.

I am not sure how complex a filmmaker Todd Phillips is. It is possible the loose ends exist because the story is actually aimless. But I think it is just as likely any gaps are closely bound to who the Joker is. You cannot get hold of him and tie him to your prejudices—which might, in fact, account for the widely divergent reviews.

A given viewer sees what he or she expects to see. What you think of Todd Phillips’ public comments on various issues. What you think he is saying or not saying about contemporary issues or problems. How seriously you take the connections between Joker and the other inhabitants of DC Comics’ universe. What you see is what you get. Or, rather, how you see is what you get.

And this is part of the point of the movie, judging from the penultimate scene. Arthur Fleck, being interviewed in Arkham State Hospital, is smoking and laughing. The psychiatrist asks him what he is laughing about. He says, “I was just thinking of a joke.” She says, “Do you want to tell it to me?” He pauses, and then says, “You wouldn’t get it.” I cannot help but think this is a statement directed at the audience: whatever you think you are seeing, based on what you think you know about me, is part of the “joke.” You do not really get it. The question, I suppose, is whether the scene is profound or simply a way of escaping questions about the film’s significance.

Another point around which the conversation revolves is the nature of evil, particularly in Alissa Wilkinson’s review. She thinks Joker aims for shock, but cannot quite deliver. Possibly, although again, I do not know whether Todd Phillips has said or alluded towards a goal of shocking the audience with Arthur Fleck’s evil. But even if this is true, it begs the question regarding the shock value of evil. To this point, Wilkinson considers Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. I agree this character is one of the most terrifying in cinema, precisely because he is as pure a sociopath as I have seen. Of course, Heath Ledger’s Joker comes closest to Anton Chigurh, because his past is so murky.

But is this what the Joker should be, and why? Cormac McCarthy’s—and, by extension, the Coen brothers of NCFOM and Fargo—characters appear to operate within a world burdened by the absence of God. Indeed, the God who is absent from McCarthy’s universe is often more present than the God whose existence so many people take for granted. I take Anton Chigurh as the embodiment of such an absence.

But Todd Phillips’ Joker is something else. Wilkinson concludes, “Joker is a tightly directed mood piece with an unforgettable performance at its center, but it is not much more than a mask, with nothing but banality behind.” While Anton Chigurh is evil incarnate, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is something much more mundane, and explicitly meant to be so. Yes, it is all very banal, but most evil in the world is. We think evil is shocking, but it is usually very ordinary. You will never see an original sin on Law and Order, for example. Murder, theft, adultery; that is about all there is.

And is it good for us to view evil as something original and unique? Does it not put too safe a distance between us and evil: “these people are so uniquely bad that I could never engage in that.” Because if we can put certain people into their own category of Evil, then they could never be us. They do not deserve our pity, or our help, or our sympathy. They are not like us. They are evil.

We should be careful not confuse evil itself with the scope or volume of said evil, or the lengths to which some sinners go in their sin. Or are we prepared to say a thousand—or a million—lives are, themselves, worth more than one life? I would contend the evil of taking one life is qualitatively as evil as taking many lives.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck creates sympathy, or even empathy, in us. And maybe the close identification is what we really do not like. It brings this form of evil a little too uncomfortably near to home. We cannot sympathize with Anton Chigurh; we can only marvel at the black hole where his humanity would otherwise be. Joker‘s Arthur Fleck, though, is a man. He is a flawed, wounded, unstable, murderous man, but a man, nonetheless.

Explaining, however, is not justifying—even if most of the fearful handwringing about what Joker might do to unstable people assumes as much. Most of the time explanation is not really explanation either. No matter how much background you provide, no matter how much evidence of mental illness or abuse or anger or bitterness, it still does not explain the bridging of the gap from illness and anger and abuse to acting violently out of those experiences. The most obvious evidence is how not everyone who is mentally ill is a mass murderer or even a one-time murderer. Not everyone who is abused or lied to commits crimes. There may be a correlation, but it is not causation.

In the end, the discussion arising from Joker, the multitude of differing interpretations, and the divergence in reviews demonstrate—at the very least—the possibility this is a better movie than I originally thought. It is uncomfortable, provocative, and raises questions which are worth considering.

Jay and I discussed Joker for our next episode of ‘Saints and Cinema’ which should be available this coming Monday at