Updated: Sep 3
SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS
Last night I saw JOKER, starring Joaquin Phoenix, directed by Todd Phillips from a screenplay by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver, shot by Lawrence Sher, with music by Hildur Guðnadóttir… Huge plaudits to them and all their fellow cast and crew for creating a stunning and unforgettable piece of cinema. I was gripped. I’m in awe.
I’d like to swerve the discourse about ‘incels’ and what the film may mean in an age of mass shootings, just seven years since twelve people were murdered by a mass shooter during a midnight screening of THE DARK KNIGHT in Aurora, Colorado. I am interested in that debate; it’s just not the thing that compelled me to write a blog post. I prefer to share raw thoughts – or rare / medium-rare thoughts. Certainly not medium or well done – this is not a thesis. Sometimes, I simply like to articulate trains of thought that follow when something has particularly inspired me. This is one of those occasions. I will just say this: Heading to the cinema I felt confident I would not be bored, but I had anticipated the possibility that I might feel uncomfortable – that the arguments of the film’s detractors might be more than valid. I was on my toes, waiting for this discomfort, but it did not surface.
The following thoughts come mostly from a storytelling perspective. I’m interested in the filmmakers’ interpetration of the character of the Joker, and how this differs and contrasts with previously acclaimed interpretations, namely the Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson portrayals. Being a writer, it feels wrong to me not to name the directors and screenwriters of those films at the very least, so here they are:
Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren
Story by Sam Hamm
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
I loved the Heath Ledger/Nolan interpretation of the Joker, and Ledger's performance was magnificent. But its underlying strength derived from the choices the filmmakers had already made on the page. The nature of their Joker is helpfully summed up/signposted by Michael Caine’s Alfred: ‘Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.’ Ledger’s Joker is about unknowable, inexplicable chaos. His back-story shifts, contradicting itself to create an unsolvable riddle.. He comes from nowhere to tear down order, to meddle and destroy and corrupt, to wreak havoc, to set Gotham alight in a giant bonfire of chaos. As an agent of chaos he is an almost magical, supernatural force. That’s a great foe for the film’s hero. I don’t know that Ledger’s Joker has an ‘arc’ – it seems to me his nature is constant. The arc lies in his adversaries’ growing understanding of his nature (from ignorance to horrified recognition), and what they themselves will have to become in order to defeat him.
The earlier Nicholson/Burton Joker does have an arc, but not one that is particularly profound or which lasts in the memory. At the start of the film he is a gangster named Jack Napier. During a shootout involving treacherous gangsters, the police, and of course Batman, Napier has the misfortune of plunging into a vat of acid. He survives but is left disfigured with chalk white skin, emerald green hair, and a rictus grin. The incident drives him insane and he begins calling himself ‘Joker’. The arc from criminal to insane criminal is fairly short and abrupt. Though Burton and Nicholson succeed in making it entertaining, it is not a profound transition. Nor is it psychologically complex. There is no nuance – that I can recall – in the interpretation of ‘criminal insanity’ and its origins. If there are depths of meaning to be mined, I suspect they relate to Joker’s role as a dark mirror to Batman/Bruce Wayne’s own psychopathologies, and the symmetry between protagonist and antagonist.
So I don’t find the Nicholson/Burton Joker ‘masterful’ or ‘inspired’ as a literary/cinematic creation in the way that I am prepared to credit the Ledger/Nolan Joker (and am about to credit the Joaquin Phoenix Joker). This said, I have to credit Nicholson’s Joker for providing the scene that has creeped me out perhaps more than any other in my movie-watching life. I’m not entirely sure how old I was when I first saw Burton’s Batman (I was born in 1985; it certainly wasn’t in 1989) but I’ll venture to say that I was too young. The scene, shortly before the climactic face-off, in which the Joker waltzes with a drowsy Vicki Vale on the rooftop, kissing her arms… creeped me out and disturbed me to the extent that I couldn't bare to watch it. That was villainy like I hadn’t seen before. Hats off to the filmmakers for conjuring a moment that could engender a visceral response like that, albeit in a kid who was probably up well after his bedtime.
Sidenote: BATMAN RETURNS is a masterpiece of the genre, and a delight for so many reasons, not least Danny Devito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Probably my favourite Batman movie, but we’re not going there today.
By contrast (turning to 2019) Arthur Fleck’s arc is all-important – it is the film. He doesn’t assume the name ‘Joker’ until almost the climactic scenes of a film that runs to two hours. There are several things we learn about Arthur early on. He carries a card that explains his condition for the benefit of concerned strangers. It reads: ‘Forgive my laughter. I have a condition… It's a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, uncontrollable laughter that doesn’t match how you feel. It can happen in people with a brain injury or certain neurological conditions.’ Arthur’s fits of laughter are not triggered by emotions or stimuli typically associated with laughter. They do not come from delight or amusement, happiness or pleasure, not even of a perverse kind. He is already psychologically, neurologically broken, and has been for a long time. His counselor points out that he is on seven different kinds of medication, but to no effect – there is no better living through chemistry for Arthur Fleck. None of it can alleviate his emotional pain, his unhappiness, his almost perpetual state of fear; it cannot prevent the relentness darkness of his thoughts.
* Incidentally, these emotions are exquisitely rendered in the film’s score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which contains all the darkness and foreboding and dread one would predict, but is also pierced through with sorrow.
And yet it’s these dark emotions that induce his maniacal laugh – because they are the only emotions he has. This laughter blossoms, it festers, it consumes, until Arthur Fleck becomes the Joker we – in our foreknowledge – are sat waiting to see emerge.
Arthur lives in an almost constant – and increasing – state of torment. But his torment is also symptomatic and symbolic of a wider disease that has infected Gotham – a social, societal disease, or a multitude of them. This is acknowledged by Arthur’s therapist – what’s happening in Gotham is having a suffocating effect on everyone with the capacity to feel it. And it’s getting worse. What’s perhaps unexpected – and clever, I think – is the viral nature of both Arthur’s actions and the (clown) persona with which they are associated. He commits a triple murder – mostly out of terror, it seems. But this act inspires something that spreads and grows among the disenfranchised of Gotham – unrest, an army of clowns taking to the streets in anger and protest, building ultimately to an outpouring of violence after Joker kills again during a live television broadcast.
Arthur is the sad clown, the depressed comedian; the grown male who lives at home with his elderly mother; he is a descendant of Norman Bates and Travis Bickle; he is an amalgam of all these types, but his condition is also particular and acute.
There’s a series of reveals about Arthur’s origins, his childhood, and his mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital. Chief of these – and most devastating – is this: as a baby Arthur was physically abused by his mother’s boyfriends. This fact of Arthur’s past is apparently undisputed (unlike the question of his parentage, and of his mother’s sanity and her relationship with Thomas Wayne, which are to some degree unresolved). And so we are forced to confront the fact that at the very outset of his life, Arthur was subjected to the most extreme trauma. And this, for me, is where this interpretation of the Joker lands powerfully.
It's a truth most storytellers would acknowledge that the darkest, most troubled souls are often forged in trauma. But this expression of that idea is somehow especially powerful and poignant, perhaps all the more so for being wrapped inside a movie about a comicbook character. The Joker is a character of widespread and longstanding recognition – he is the cackling trickster, Batman’s most recognisable antagonist, with top billing among that canon of villains. Ask me at ten years old and I could probably have explained those fundamental facts – as could a majority of people who have grown up immersed in the modern popular culture of the western world over the last several decades, I suspect. Somewhere within the structures of my brain, presumably, there is a little nexus of neurons that holds this idea of the Joker, and has done for getting on 25 years.
The 2019 Joaquin Phoenix Joker comes along and says that that maniacal laughter – that so epitomises the Joker we think we know – is from a deep, deep well of almost unimaginable pain and trauma. Each laugh is a latent cry of torment. That inverted laughter becomes the essence of Arthur Fleck’s reincarnation as the Joker. And each act of violence, of murder, and all the acts of villainy to come are just louder, more extreme expressions of that laughter – reflexes of a malfunctioning mind, broken by the unbearable.
The contradiction, the inversion, the cold shard of truth about trauma and suffering as seminal and destructive forces with devastating reverberations, and the human embodiment of this idea in an extreme form – these are probably the great over-arching themes of the Batman mythology. Here they leave a powerful and memorable impression. I’m not familiar with the underlying comicbook material and all its iterations, so I cannot profess to know where this interpretation breaks new ground and where it doesn’t, but I pay compliment to the resulting creation as a masterful feat of storytelling.