Joker: Tragicomedy in 2019
Todd Phillips’ Joker is, indeed, a farce, as suggested by Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” that plays over the closing credits. Not in the sense that the movie is silly; its emotional intensity is almost unrelenting over the course of two hours, notwithstanding classic slapstick allusions (like a scene where they watch Charlie Chaplin) and chase scenes (including the one that closes the film). The main character’s uncontrollable laugh-cry that gets vaguely chalked up to a “neurological condition” is probably the best illustration of this unrelenting quality – even the moments of levity, when we would normally laugh with the main character, are suffused with the uncanny and with sadness.
Rather, the story is a farce in that it unfolds around absurdly improbable situations that push Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) into becoming a criminal mastermind as if by necessity. One set of these situations – Arthur’s romance with Sophie (Zazie Beetz) – turns out to be merely his fantasy, perhaps hallucinatory, but many others seem to be real within the frame of dystopian Gotham. A clerk at the mental hospital starts reading aloud to Arthur the file of a previous patient; when Arthur seizes the file and sprints through the corridors, no one notices or stops him. (Maybe the first part could have happened in the early 1980s, when the film is set, but surely not the second.) Similar neglect happens when he last visits his mother in the hospital. His outburst on live TV drags on and on without being halted, aside from off-screen hints that the host should end it. But I am not interested in calling foul on failures of “realism” in a comic-book movie. The point is that these and other absurdities amount to the fictional world’s conspiring to push Arthur over the edge. His madness is just Gotham’s madness individualized.
This conspiracy makes Arthur a kind of Raskolnikov, the hero(?) of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, too, is an impoverished single man who wants to be great, though he is not explicitly saddled with any mental illness. Unlike Arthur, he decides that in order to become great, he has to step beyond human morality by committing a crime (theft, in this case). But when he attempts it, the world around him so greatly conspires to enable the crime that he ends up combining it with murder, and he cannot easily identify himself as its cause. Guilt (the need to confess) and a search for his own identity then entangles most of the rest of the book in a whodunit detective story.
Arthur’s crimes are similarly abetted by the world around him. In fact, it strikes me that his violence is largely mimetic: like most in Gotham, he learned it from others (the street thugs who steal his sign; the drunk young men on the train) and passes it on (to the mobs of protesters). He then has a choice about whether to identify with it, but his own detective search doesn’t focus on the agent of the crime; it focuses on the question of where he comes from. When his previous understanding of his identity crumbles – when the assumptions on which he had built a troubled but peaceful life are betrayed – he straightforwardly leaps into his new identity as a villain. The only thing any of this has to do with his mental illness is its role in isolating him and frustrating his attempts to do the right thing.
Whatever the particular nature of his mental illness is supposed to be in the story, I worry that it’s only a prop. The film’s task is to provide the backstory for a clown who just wants to watch the world burn, one who is remarkably clever at accomplishing outsized violence. Because mental illness is primarily experienced by others (and to some extent by the afflicted themselves) when sufferers do strange and unexpected things, Arthur’s illness (plausibly established through compulsive laughing, his dancing, his frequent headlong flights, and his endless smoking) offers the story relatively simple justifications for his astonishing acts of violence: he suffers (his past is gradually revealed to have been terrible, and his present options in life are steadily closing down) + he’s mentally ill in some way = an “explanation” for basically anything you want.
For those who have been mentally ill or who care for the mentally ill, such a portrayal is recognizable in its elements but rings false as a whole. Suffering and abuse, especially in childhood, certainly do contribute to severe mental illness. Acute stress and the closing down of possibilities in the present really can precipitate psychotic breaks in those who are vulnerable. It is often be the case that the clinically insane have been unconsciously enlisted to bear witness to unspeakable aspects of communal experience. To people who are terrified and miserable, whose world is perpetually on the brink of annihilation, violence does indeed look more reasonable than it otherwise should. These are the pieces that fit with real mental illness. What’s missing in the movie, however, is both the terror (there is plenty of misery) and the usual object of that violence: the self. Severely mentally ill folks are combatants in a war and, like most such people, are extremely dangerous. But the vast majority of the time, the enemies they explicitly fight are themselves.
Arthur seems to consider suicide occasionally – this looked like one possible outcome of his appearance on the Murray Franklin show – but we get little sense of self-hatred. He doesn’t really eat and grows ever thinner, but that looks like it’s due to poverty and feeding his mother before himself, not a self-punitive refusal or a catatonic isolation. Instead of portraying violence against the self that may sometimes expand to include other people (here Arthur’s mother is a much more convincing portrait), the film plays on the popular confusion of psychopathy (Anti-Social Personality Disorder) and psychosis (a break with the shared world). Someone could be afflicted by both, but think about the profound differences between Hannibal Lecter and John Nash (the latter from A Beautiful Mind). Although these, too, are Hollywood portrayals, one of these characters doesn’t hallucinate, is mostly quite charming and unconfused in his thinking, and is not taken up with a private delusion (except maybe his sense that it’s fine to hunt and eat people). Hannibal is a psychopath: he’s exquisitely and brilliantly attuned to others’ feelings, but only for the sake of manipulating them and entertaining himself; he just feels no concern at all about treating people as things. Nash, by contrast, is psychotic: he sees what’s not there; he elaborates his strange experiences into an extensive delusion; he wanders around and mutters to himself. If he has trouble empathically connecting with others, it’s because of his isolation and the distractions of private, intrusive experiences, not because he has no concern for their well-being.
As a result of this mishmash, Arthur’s escalating violence feels like it’s trying hard to connect up with his illness, but what really makes sense of the former is the dysfunction and violence of his community. This has the curious effect of confronting the viewer with a version of the identity problem that Raskolnikov struggled with but Arthur seems largely to ignore: who is to blame for his crimes? The rich? The poor, huddled masses? Arthur’s mother? The guy who provided him a gun? We struggle with this question; Arthur doesn’t bother. Is this because the betrayal by his mother was so great that it outshone all other questions of agency? Or is it because Phillips wanted to remind us of the social problems of our day more than he wanted to explore the character he was studying?