Joker has been criticized as a splatter film likely to encourage copycat gun violence. The movie does—trigger warning— contain some gory scenes, but it is much more complex than an effort to shock or a celebration of violence. Symbolism, social criticism, psychopathology, the human need for affirmation, surrealism and a virtuoso acting performance make a heady mix.
In the superhero universe, the Joker is Batman’s iconic foe. The accounts of their battles are retold in many accounts, in film and in print. This film does include a retelling of eight-yearold Bruce Wayne’s horrified childhood witness of his parents’ murder. However, this story’s protagonist is Arthur Fleck, played by Jaoquin Phoenix in an Oscar worthy performance, and his evolution from a seedy, underpaid entertainment clown into Batman’s bane.
As the film opens Fleck, in a clown outfit, is trying to attract attention to a retail sale by pirouetting with balletic grace, holding a huge wooden sign. It is snatched from him by a street gang. He chases them into an alley to recover the sign and is badly beaten by them, and the sign destroyed, epitomizing Fleck’s status as victim that is the film’s emotional center, and the driving force of his becoming the Joker.
He is a victim in another way. He suffers from involuntary fits of laughter unrelated to any mood appropriate feeling—probably the psychiatric disorder called pseudobulbar affect. Fleck’s aspiration to become famous as a standup comedian is unrealistic, of course, but the remarkable irony of someone unable to control his laughter wanting to make others laugh—a joker—should not be lost. Another cruel irony in the film is Fleck, who wants desperately to be known, must wear a mask in order to make a living and makes an ultimate decision to own the mask, to become Joker.
But while a comedian is a joker, not all jokers are comedians. Jokers are also wild cards that juggle the odds in card games. Like the Tarot card the Fool, like royal jesters, like the Loki of Norse mythology, the joker is a cultural symbol of the urge to upset the order of things, to generate novelty or chaos. Fleck may not succeed in becoming a famous comedian, but he does bring chaos to the streets. His mad career upsets the efforts of mayor candidate, millionaire Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, who pledges to stamp out crime and disorder on the streets of Gotham.
Gotham is crime ridden, partly because many of its residents are impoverished, as well as disadvantaged. When, after being robbed and beaten, Fleck returns to the entertainment clowns’ locker room at the agency that employs them, one of his colleagues gives him a gun. “There are animals out there. You need to protect yourself,” he says. When Fleck’s gun spills out of his outfit while he is entertaining at a children’s hospital, he loses his job. To make matters worse, the clinic at which Fleck gets his treatment runs into budget problems and he loses his therapist and his access to medication that helps control his symptoms.
Fleck’s thirst for fame is a transmutation of his wish to be recognized, to be seen, in self psychology terms, to have a stabilizing self-object.
What gives the movie its surreal element is a frequent deliberate ambiguity about whether we are sharing one of Fleck’s fantasies of being famous or of being loved, or an objective reality.
Early in the movie we watch Fleck as he talks with the psychotherapist at the free clinic. The therapist is straight-faced, given to repetitive stock questions, clearly un-empathic, if systematic. That session bookends with another session with a different but equally un-empathic psychotherapist as the movie ends. Fleck ragefully confronts her with her inability to see, to really see him. The camera cuts away from the scene and opens on one of Fleck gallivanting down a hallway leaving a track of red footprints. He disappears from view, and we see attendants rushing back and forth in a Keystone Kop pursuit.
It’s ambiguous. You can decide for yourself, but I take it to be a surreal description of the Joker’s leaving this movie to enter Batman’s world.