“You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! I just do things. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show schemers how pathetic their attempts to show things really are. ”
Since its explosive release on October 4th, Todd Philips’s Joker has garnered respect, albeit grudging at times, from audiences across the country. The spidery agility of Joaquin Phoenix, paired with some eerie cinematography, stays with viewers long after the big screen goes dark. Washington Post’s Ann Hornday characterized the film, “A grim, shallow, distractingly derivative homage to 1970s movies at their grittiest, Joker continues the dubious darker-is-deeper tradition.” Meanwhile, Richard Lawson from Vanity Fair commented, “From a step back, outside in the baking Venetian heat, it also may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologized.” Whether Joker idolizes the worst of our society or shines in the darkness of its decay, the movie is a gripping, visceral take on the fallen man. Issues arise when the outside world, laden with the filth of its own Gotham Cities, tries to pick it apart.
The movie focuses on a pre-Batman era, in which cruelty paints a lurid landscape, with Gotham City as its canvas. The streets are dotted with trash that no one bothers to pick up. Kids bide their time assaulting passersby in dingy alleys. The government blindly cuts funding for mental health programs while the wealthy harass women in empty subways. And somewhere in the middle of this madness, we are brought the maddest-in-chief, Arthur Fleck. A failing standup comedian and a part time clown, Arthur is forced to navigate between the atrocities of poverty, his traumatic past, and his deteriorating mental health. His descent into outright violence has drawn comparisons to predecessor films, like Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. But there is something graceful about Phoenix’s performance that sets it apart. The film’s pregnant pauses contrasted with his uncontrollable, helpless laughter suspend gravity as Phoenix hurtles through the chambers of his own dark mind.
Although Philips’s film is presented in its own socio-cultural context, the work is a gritty fun-house mirror rather a reflection of present day. Yes, the movie touches on abject economic inequality, neglect of the mentally ill, and a forlorn disinterest in the exploited, grisly corners of urban life. But these allusions to this country’s ugly reality are not meant to sell viewers an “America-In-A-Nutshell” package, neatly presented with a deranged Joaquin Phoenix in a “buy one, get one free” deal — the idea would be ludicrous. But unconsciously, as we watch Phoenix descend into a contagious madness, that’s precisely what we expect.
It’s uncomfortable to reflect on Joker and not carve him into a dark political allegory, an echo, a representation. This seems to defeat the entire purpose of film, which (when done correctly) guides us into an escape and then wraps us within our own realities. But Joker is presented to audiences from the eyes of Arthur himself, with certain scenes altered by hallucinations. Often, the movie’s few moments of hope are an illusion, attempting to conceal Arthur’s isolation with rosy delusions. This Joker isn’t meant to be our hero; this is a man who is awkward, volatile, and occasionally revels in self-pity. But he certainly is his own hero, within a fantasy that bends and buckles at his will. Seven years ago, the late Heath Ledger mused about the nature of this character. “You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! I just do things.” Strangely, this performance feels like a ghost of these words; the film charges at the kind of violence we have grown to recognize, but doesn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) catch up.
And this is precisely where a practical interpretation of Joker becomes problematic. Because those of us who play a quick “connect-the-dots” and associate Arthur with any other dangerous white man today forget that this isn’t just a movie about the Joker. The movie is the Joker. The characterization is devious, the cinematography manipulative; and the moment audiences think they’ve understood everything, the movie shatters that image into pieces. Film critics have challenged the movie for seeming “muddled”, and not offering solutions for the vague problems it presents. But Todd Philips’s film isn’t meant to hold all the answers, and any movie that claims to do so is plain arrogant. Ominous and relentless, Joker is, in every sense, a question mark.