Joker – Movie Review and a Prophetic Picture of Society

I should start by saying I don’t recommend this movie for kids. It is a dark, dark movie and not at all along the lines of other superhero movies that are out there. You are also not going to walk away from this one feeling uplifted. The movie is dark and the ending has been described as troubling.

As my friend and I entered the theater last night a local police officer was scanning tickets and looking at IDs. This was partially in response to the shooting that happened in one of the last big Batman movies. I still remember coming out of that one and seeing the breaking news on my phone. But it was also out of a widespread concern for what this movie might produce among impressionable viewers. Throughout the country this weekend police officers are undercover in the theaters watching this film as a security measure.

That’s the state of America in 2019.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW

Joker is the story of the infamous DC comic villain but obviously went well beyond anything we have seen before. I did not feel like I was watching a comic book movie as I watched. I felt like I was watching a movie about the makings of a modern-day mass shooter. This sense was felt throughout the viewing.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a mentally disturbed peon of society living in (what appears to be) 1970s era Gotham. The movie starts by informing us there is a sanitation worker strike ongoing and as a result, the city is covered with garbage. The environment of trash pervades the movie as the setting. It is one of the main characters. Early in the movie Fleck is assaulted and beat up by a group of kids, while wearing his clown costume, and left nearly unconscious in an alleyway as another piece of garbage.

Fleck’s mental illness is another major part of the story. The movie covers this really well. We see him suffering. We see him trying. And we see society totally insensitive to his struggles. A government program meant to keep him medicated and counseled is little more than pandering in its effectiveness toward Fleck. Even this is lost however when funding is cut.

The villain in the movie is society at large, particularly that element of a society controlled by the rich and elite. Thomas Wayne, the father to Bruce Wayne, is the closest thing to an archrival that Fleck finds. Wayne is not so much evil as he and his class are just uncaring to the plight of Fleck and the rest of society.

The movie nearly drags this misery on too long, but Fleck finally has an experience that leads him to snap. His intent is to go on a local television show and kill himself as a joke. In his mind that would be funny. Instead, he kills the show host, his former hero. This killing launches mayhem across Gotham and Joker is a weird sort of anti-hero allowing the suffering class across the city to finally voice their rage.

What I Saw

The movie hit me in several ways as I watched from beginning to end. It is difficult to not note the excellent directing, cinematography and acting. I’ll probably watch it again. It’s just a well-done movie. The mental illness aspect is strong for the first hour or longer. I kept thinking of people I know who suffer from mental illness. I could see their struggle.

But by the end of the movie, after the snap, after the mayhem, the overriding impression that hit me on Joker was that this was more than a movie. This was a prophetic picture of the times and culture we are living in – particularly American culture.

The environment of garbage that pervades every scene of the movie is emblematic of the vast environment of materialism that makes up our world. It is inescapable. We are all part of it. It is trash and we cannot escape it. More than the environment, however, the person of Joker represents the growing mass of people who make up our society. They are mortally wounded at emotional, mental and spiritual levels. They feel betrayed by society. They are lost, forgotten, isolated and increasingly dangerous. This is the reality of America we have in 2019. We can put a lot of masks on it, distract these people with a lot of entertainment, but at the end of the day, there is misery all around us.

The night show host played by Robert De Niro, Murry Franklin, tries to explain Joker through the filter of politics and comedy. Neither is correct. He is a mentally disturbed individual representative of the wider society he is drawn from. Similarly, we try to explain real-life phenomena from mass shootings to deaths of despair through the framework of politics. It doesn’t work. We are dealing with broken, wounded, suffering people and the longer they go undealt with and unhealed, the more dangerous the wider societal implications become.

When you watch the movie, note the relationships Joker has in his life. Nothing is real. Every relationship is either a lie, an illusion, or a source of betrayal. Family relationships are broken down. There is no one who is true. No one can be trusted. No one who will keep him safe. Even those heroes he raises up on a pedestal in his tortured mind are ultimate sources for betrayal and pain.

The movie ends with mayhem and chaos. As I walked out of the theater last night I couldn’t help but consider Joker as a prelude to where we are heading. It will lack the drama, the music, and the pageantry but the growing mass of hurt people in our society will have consequences.