Joker - a review and a reflection
2 seperate pieces on Joker by Todd Phillips, written by Amir and Ji Sung, giving different takes and critiques of the film.
Image: screenshot from film
Part I - A Review - Ji Sung Park
Joker, released on October 4th, was highly anticipated, widely praised and greatly disappointing.
Do not misunderstand; it is a great movie in many aspects. The cinematography is superb; even with bright colors, the atmosphere feels darker than Sin City. The sound editing is pitch-perfect (Aha!); in the scene where Arthur dances his way down the stairs, the background music transitions quickly and appropriately from that reflecting the ostensibly comical image of the clown to that resounding his descent into madness – truly beautiful. The acting is Oscar-deserving. Joaquin Phoenix honors his last name with his flawless impersonation of the flawed character of Arthur Fleck, losing somewhere around 24 kilograms for the act.
But does the movie really deserve all the praise it is receiving? I have my doubts. Many audiences found it boring, not least because of the repeated and protracted laughter of the protagonist. But more importantly, it is a predictable story. Even Marvel zealots know who the Joker is. The downward path for Arthur was predetermined, and after watching the trailer a couple of times it will not be difficult for an indifferent granny to concoct half of the plot successfully. In that sense, the movie is a monotonous routine of disappointments and humiliation for Arthur. What is interesting is his growing versatility in murder. Given time, he might as well have killed someone magically with a pencil. May true DC (or movie) fans get my joke, and not be dazzled by the cheap Batman references in the movie.
However, the director does play a smart trick at the end of the movie. Instead of closing with Arthur dancing (that man just can’t stop dancing) on the hood of the police car, which would have been epic, the movie ends with Arthur having imagined a “joke” in Arkham State. This gives the audience a creative option for interpreting the movie; that the whole event was contrived as a mere “joke” by Arthur, in Inception-esque layers of imagination. Someone noticed that time does not change, or more precisely that all the clocks have the same arrangement in the movie, which seems to support the theory that the whole story was fabricated. Nevertheless, like Inception, there is no definitive explanation and there should not be one.
Now for the more serious talk. Some people suggest that Joker sheds light on the rejection and discrimination of mentally troubled people. Really, such awareness is not addressed in the film in any perceivable way, primarily because Arthur is not as insane as one may first suspect. By nature, he is not a psychopath, although he quickly turns into one. And with the exception of the hallucinations involving Sophie, he has a pretty strong grasp on reality. Enough so to deliver a fully-fledged, critical and apparently quite inspirational speech defending his murder. No, Arthur Fleck is neither as psycho as Norman Bates nor as sophisticated as Hannibal Lecter to entertain the audience by himself, ironically suiting the character.
Then, is Joker a critique on society and its inequality? The answer is: not really. The movie does illustrate how the rich upper class can be despicably apathetic and self-indulgent. But that alone does not justify murdering them. Thus, if the murders were committed by an unhappy social critic, it is an act of downright evil; if they were committed by a madman/psychopath, it is a series of unfortunate events (Aha!); for the victims, of course. In the end, what did Thomas Wayne ever do but punch an unreasonable man, reasonably, in the face? And what wrong did Murray Franklin commit to deserve a bullet to the head? It could be argued that they committed much more contemptful acts off-screen, but such accusation can be made of literally anyone. Therefore, the murder of Thomas and Murry cannot be more right than the murder of Christina Grimmie. Then, was the lower class so abused as to desire complete social upheaving? Sophie, who lives in the same miserable apartment as Arthur, doesn’t seem to think so. She has managed to put up with her harsh realities and establish a life for herself and her child. Moreover, Arthur murders Randall, a man in a similar socio-economic position as Arthur. The result of this action has obscured the conflict between the classes, and that between a troubled man and the world is highlighted. In fact, the story of the movie resembles the Taiping Revolution in many aspects; a gravely disappointed man-turned-mad unexpectedly leading the unsatisfied populace to a darker and more chaotic future. Only that it is set in a world far from realistic, unlike Parasite, or symbolic, unlike District 9, and only depicts a fictional inequality like in Elysium.
Then, perhaps the only valid message in the movie is the repercussions of lying, both to others and oneself. Penny Fleck, who is probably much more insane than Arthur, lies to her son about his origin. This inflames Arthur’s conception of being mistreated by society, exacerbating his mental state and for Penny, leads to her tragic death. Happy themes! Hopefully this movie did not inspire too many ideas apart from Halloween costumes.
Part II -An Adventure of self reflection on social responsibility - Amir Harith
The reason I chose this title is that the film itself made me pull an all-nighter reflecting about my life and the society I’m currently living in. It provides me with a space, somewhere in my head, to recall the smallest cruel stuff and the selfish acts I’ve ever done that could hurt anybody in this world and also to put some thoughts on why I find familiarity in the despair experienced by Arthur Fleck, the Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix.
Up to this point, the critiques that I’ve heard from my friends who dislike Joker is that the movie is just another lesson of: what are the consequences of social inequality, bad social integration or the problematic relationship between the governer and the governed. I think we should see beyond this obvious, simplistic causality of why the society in the film descent to societal insanity showed via the great buildup of the movie. We should be able to see the subtle messages and the complexity that Todd Phillips attempted to bring for the audience.
The conceptualization of the world around us through the eyes of the privileged
What I found was thought-provoking is the fact that the film gives us an alternative perspective about Thomas Wayne. It is not only that it changes the common way of seeing him as the hero for Gotham that seeks to cure and redress the injustice (from altruistic businessman to an abusive person), it also tells us, the audience, through what agency we have been absorbing or accepting ideas. It is through the lenses of somebody else: the media that is run and regulated by the captains of industry, the rich or politicians that have personal agenda. This was most evident when Arthur gives his indelible speech that says “ If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me… but these guys (the three dead Wayne rich workers), because Thomas Wayne cries about them on TV…” which tells us that, even if we don’t notice it, we believe in things that somebody else wants us to believe. The things that come to my mind especially when thinking about the Malaysian context is how we perceive ethnic issues – when politicians play their racial-religious card and we become “enthusiastic” talking about it when we otherwise wouldn’t. Or how many Malaysians see immigrants in the media – the portrayal of the dangerous migrants and how it affects our perspective on them. It might appear that this news coverage is harmless, but this hatred and the normalization of this “us vs them” mentality has become so entrenched, fortified and almost irreversible within the system that we ourselves contributed to by supporting it or worse, says nothing about this evil process. As a consequence, eventually, this vicious view is translated into an inhumane policy.
Furthermore, I also think the movie delicately asks us to be skeptical about the philanthropic behavior by the upper class and to avoid taking things at a surface level. When we see a politician or a CEO of a company tries to fight for the poor or donates money to the underprivileged on newspapers, we think they know what they are doing, and they are doing something right. As much as I would love to celebrate this charitable ‘intention’ and demeanor, we always fail to recognize that this act is an indirect homogenization of the powerless, the poor by a person who has never lived this life. It removes the possibility of seeing the poor as having various identities and simultaneously silencing their different interests and point of views. This is extremely important because it affects the way we see the methods of correcting the system and helping people – not having a white savior complex. I also believe that it influences the way we see ourselves (coming from a different spectrum of the middle-class) who either think that we are working just for the sake of improving our own lives, or even if there is some form of awareness about the need to help the have-nots, we feel complacent with the amount of work we’ve done to help them. We follow a university trip or an NGO to a poor area for a month and teach impoverished kids English or Mathematics, we think we understand them already and have done enough to help them. I believe there is no such thing as peace or ‘sufficient contribution’ if there is one person out there who is struggling to survive in the system that we are complacent and privileged to live under.
We are all morally liable for the injustice that’s happening around us
I believe many people who managed to find the good within Arthur, are able to resonate a lot with the everyday cruelty suffered by him. Throughout the movie, Phoenix tries to be selfless and to do what is presumed right, at least in his small circle. He never misses to check the mailbox just in case there is a letter that his mum asks him about every day. Which means, he never forgets about the needs or interests of people around him. When he got beaten up by some naughty kids, we can see his hand reaching for the broken placard showing that he cares about his job and potentially, that is the only way to help his family survive. When he saw the woman and her child running for the elevator, he stopped the door from closing. It may seem like these are small nice random acts that most people do in daily life, but I believe they are the representation of Arthur trying to keep his sanity through doing what is deemed as correct behavior.
However, all of these moral acts are fundamentally betrayed by something bigger than himself, something he himself cannot control: the discriminative system he is working for, lies told by the same mother he devoted his life for, made fun of by his idolized comedian, rejected and ignored by the woman he has a crush on. It is the same for many of us who sometimes feel that we are doing something that is regarded as honorable or something generally nice but then ignored, forgotten and worse taken wrongly as having bad intentions. That is why it is easy for us to relate to Arthur’s journey from the film because we experience this feeling almost every day.
I think what is more important is to acknowledge is how mean and cruel people can be on a day-to-day basis irrespective of whether or not they are deliberate. We probably do not have the intentions to hurt people, but our objectives can sometimes clash with other people’s interests and that is totally normal. The question then becomes how you can think about it before you sleep – the opportunities that you might have taken away from someone else. It is important to self-reflect so that you remove the tendency for being individualistic in every single step that you take because it potentially affects others. Fundamentally, I think Phillips’ message in this movie is simple: the sufferings that people experience at a micro-level, whether being rejected from a job because of their ethnic identity or rejected from having a decent life because of not having access to good education, are all our fault. We cannot stay motionless and have to do something about it.
Ultimately, this movie is not only about top-down viciousness, but bottom-up complacency and ignorance about the world around us. Joker is an allegory about what happens in a society where cruelty is pandemic, and empathy is absent. It is a wake-up call that beseeches us to be kind to one another.