Film opens grimly and tumbles downward into pure night
By Jim Bloch
Spoiler Alert: The following article contains mild spoilers in a synopsis of the film. Read on at your own risk.
There are no boogeymen jumping out of the closet or hirsute hands grabbing your ankles from under the cellar stairs. By Hollywood standards, violence is employed sparingly. Some of the little bloodshed there is comes from Joker’s own mouth and he uses it to finger-paint a smile on his face.
Nonetheless, “Joker” is the scariest movie in theaters this Halloween.
The movie, directed by Todd Phillips, tells the origin story of one of Batman’s most sinister enemies, known as Joker.
Advertisements - Click the Speaker Icon for Audio
It also tells the origin story of every troubled soul in America.
That’s what makes it scary.
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Arthur Fleck asks talk show host Murray Franklin.
Fleck is the name of Joker before he becomes Joker. Played by the transfixing Joaquin Phoenix, a dark Gumby of an actor, Arthur is but a fleck on civil society, something to flicked into the shadows and forgotten about.
“I’ll tell you what you get!” says Joker. “You get what you f** deserve.”
Joker delivers what he thinks Franklin deserves.
As the movie opens, Fleck lives with his disturbed mother, played by a brittle, jittery Francis Conroy, on the upper floor of a low rent apartment building. It’s life askew. But it’s life characterized by a twisted stability. Together, they watch the TV show “Live with Murray Franklin” as Fleck hallucinates that he’s in the audience and Murray calls him up to the stage and hugs him. I always wanted a son like you, he tells him. Arthur bathes mom in their stained bathtub. He is employed as a party clown.
If there’s security in routine, Arthur’s daily life provides a kind of cage of control around his darkest impulses. Once that stability is disrupted, his life cascades toward chaos.
He is viciously beaten by kids who steal his advertising sign for a going-out-of-business sale. He gets fired from his job for carrying a gun into a hospital room full of sick kids. When three drunk Wall Street stiffs attack him in a subway car, he shoots them dead; the apolitical act of vengeance sparks a political movement known as “Kill the Rich” among the city’s disenfranchised, who begin dressing like clowns and marching on city hall.
Mom tells Arthur that the wealthy Thomas Wayne, who running for office, is his dad.
When Arthur turns his clown’s cane into flowers and hands them to the young Bruce Wayne — the future Batman — through the iron gate of daddy Wayne’s mansion, he’s chastised by the family servant Arthur Pennyworth.
“Why did you give him these flowers?” demands Pennyworth.
“I was just trying to make Bruce smile,” says Fleck.
But Bruce doesn’t smile. Even if he had, it would have been delusionary because, as Fleck explains, “They’re not real. It’s magic.”
Old man Wayne later denies that he is Arthur’s father; Arthur was adopted, Wayne tells him, and his mom was institutionalized for abusing him.
Everything else that can go wrong goes wrong. The government program that provides Arthur with his lousy drugs and lousy counselor is canceled. His mother has a stroke. His girlfriend turns out to be a mirage.
The events, settings and characters are so grim that nothing is funny, not even the film’s straight-up jokes and sight gags. There might be such a thing as gallows humor, but not when the rope is around your neck and the floor beneath your feet has dropped away.
One of Fleck’s symptoms is that he breaks into uncontrollable laughter at random moments. Ironically, it is that laughter, exhibited at a comedy club, that gets him booked on Murray Franklin show. When a funny show books the least funny character in town, it suggests that comedy at best is a laugh track. At worst, it is a cover-up for something much more sinister. Indeed, Fleck presents people with a card that says laughter is a disorder.
If there are any moments of lightness or grace in the film, they come as Arthur dances, a form of escape from the miseries of daily life. Phoenix, it turns out, is an alluring dancer, sometimes ebullient, sometimes as scary as a charmed boa constrictor. But his escape is only interior. When he attempts to dance with his mom in their downbeat living room, it’s like dancing with the dead. There is no Fred Astaire here; the brightness of the Hollywood shuffle is trapped inside the TV set.
The movie “La La Land” also used dance to suggest the peaks of ecstasy. In Joker, the peaks are so much lower. “La La Land” opened with a rousing mass dance on a traffic-jammed L.A. freeway to the song “Another Day of Sun.”
Here, there is no daylight. Joker’s contortions may as well be stepped off to “Another Night of Midnight.”
Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.