It is apt that Joaquin Phoenix’s titular performance in Joker has sparked such an incredible amount of discord amongst reviewers and audiences, as the character is simply an avatar of the trickster figures who appear throughout various mythologies all over the world. Like Loki who always turns up at a party simply to get people arguing with each other, Phoenix’s Joker has popped up precisely on a particular faultline in society and his role is to keep that faultline open like a running sore. On the one hand, Joker is an incitement to incel gun rage, irresponsibly sympathising with entitled man-babies; on the other, it is a grim portrayal of the downtrodden outsider, the worm that turns. Dirty Harry or Raskolnikov?
One of the more inane lines of criticism levelled at Joker is that it doesn’t have a clear message and is therefore irresponsible, as though film should be primarily a didactic medium signposting rights and wrongs in the least ambiguous way possible. It’s been 128 years since Oscar Wilde wrote that, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Our critics have yet to catch up with Wilde’s vision of art and they resemble the moralists of Victorian times more and more with each passing year. But, on the other hand, surely a film based on a comic book character might be expected to come with a clear sense of right and wrong? A lot of the negativity expressed towards Joker seems to stem from a feeling that it is trying to be something that it is not, that it is above itself. At the most banal level, we can note that it is a serious film masquerading as a supervillain movie. This causes some discomfort as people are mistrustful of masks. (“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”) Why is there ambiguity when there should be clarity?
The key to understanding this comes directly from Phoenix’s sensuous performance itself. Arthur Fleck has a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he finds himself in difficult situations. But never has a word been so inadequate in expressing the thing it describes, as Arthur’s laughter is a horrible, retching, suffocating nervous tic, and it is performed by Phoenix in such a way that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. It appears in the movie somewhat like the effects of Tourette’s and in a similar way it provokes both pity and an instinctive disgust. Arthur’s involuntary laughter seems to have emerged due to abuse he suffered as a child. We are left to infer that the young Arthur must have developed some sort of psychological defence mechanism to block out his abuse, and that this mechanism has now developed into an involuntary laughter mechanism that becomes triggered with stress. This emblematic trait is something that is channelled through Arthur from somewhere else; it is not under his conscious control, he is defined by a force that he cannot identify with, a negative feedback loop that seems to be deliberately trying to undermine his conscious intentions.
Is this not the source of the trickster himself? The memory of conflict that refuses to be subdued and put to rest? For Arthur, it is the suppressed memory of abuse that he cannot begin to integrate with his conscious self that is the genesis for the emergence of Joker. For the wider culture, particularly American culture, it’s the suppressed memory of working-class white men, once the vanguard of leftist politics, now its bane, that is the source of discomfort with this film. The problem is exacerbated by the context from which Joker arises, namely comic books. No doubt, a serious film looking at the same subject matter would be better received by the critics who couldn’t stomach Joker, because it would contain all of the correct caveats and disclaimers, like Falling Down or God Bless America. But, in some ways, Joker has more in common with a film like Nightcrawler, with its disdain for media cynicism. Joker doesn’t direct its ire at the violent white man but at the social context from which he arises, and for many on the left this is now an unpardonable sin. It’s an irony that would have our trickster heaving with mirthless laughter.
I wondered whether it might not have been better to have made this film with a completely original character. Would it be able to explore its themes more freely if it were not compromised by being constrained within the world of DC? Perhaps it could have been turned into a remake of The King of Comedy, and as such it would have had a powerful effect. The answer, I feel, is that Joker actually benefits from being part of the Batman universe. Far from trivialising the issues at hand, it elevates them by virtue of the fact that this story has become a type of modern fairy tale. There is no sense of real novelty or narrative tension in the film because the story is so well known. Just as in the world of folklore, engagement comes from repetition. With the bold symbolism of masks and clowns throughout the film, there is plenty to suggest the sinister childishness of fairy tales. Over time, more and more contemporary concerns become compressed into the Batman legend and this makes it simply a type of emerging folklore.
Joaquin Phoenix has presented us with a trickster figure for our times, and the fact that the film is set in the early 80s only reinforces that because ours is a time of nostalgia. This trickster presents us with no answers, just unresolved conflicts. He is the undigestible remainder that cannot be easily assimilated. Arthur’s bloody vendetta begins when he is given a gun by one of his co-workers at an agency that hires out clowns. A clown gives a gun to another clown and tragedy ensues. Is there a more elegant metaphor for contemporary America anywhere in film? Joker is not art; it’s better than that. It’s the continuation of folklore by any means necessary.