Joker: A Masterclass In Storytelling And Commentary
There is a scene midway through Joker where Joaquin Phoenix’s character Arthur Fleck looks across at his mental healthcare social worker and says, “You don’t really listen, do you?” and without even acknowledging the comment that worker goes on to say what she has to.
At the end of the film, you are left with about three different interpretations of what this scene could be about and that is the kind of movie Joker is. Director Todd Phillips, he of Hangover movies fame, has presented in his words a dedication to Scorcese films and the overall feel is very reminiscent of classics like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy which both starred Robert De Niro who plays a TV talk show host in Joker which Arthur idolizes.
Joker traces Arthur Fleck’s extremely isolated and ignored existence in Gotham City as a loner with a mental disability that lives with his ill mother and has to take care of her. The film looks at his journey from this sad desperate lonesome existence to his eventual transformation as the Joker and the sympathy that one felt for the character gets replaced by a sense of pity and later almost revulsion. This kind of story arc is hard to pull off and there are certain beats where it doesn’t quite fit, but largely the film is successful in this execution.
The Gotham City portrayed here is one where there is garbage overflowing on the streets due to strikes and billionaire Thomas Wayne is planning to run as Mayor and fix the city’s issues. The contrast between the haves and the have nots does not always form a central part of the story, but it is very evident whenever these two sides of Gotham cross paths
Arthur’s mental illness plays a big part in the film and as we find out more and more of his past and the film advances to its climax it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the reality from the delusions and thoughts that Arthur has. A lot has been said about the film in the press already with some even labeling the movie as ‘dangerous’ and ‘irresponsible’ given the current climate in the US around gun violence and far-right movements across the globe.
It is in that sense a masterful commentary piece on society as many of the issues that Arthur faces for real or in his head are issues that many people may face in their day-to-day existences. The reasons why some journalists have labelled the film and its portrayal of a grass-root movement incendiary is understandable as the climax sees Gotham descend into anarchy and chaos.
Going back to the question talked about at the start of this write-up one could almost imagine that that the line “You don’t really listen, do you?” is not just one merely uttered by Arthur to his care worker but one that is a subtle comment about how the issues of those on the fringes of society are never really heard by those in power. Thus, going on to legitimize the violent fall-out one witnesses in the third act of the film.
One cannot deny that the film has the ability to portray anti-social behavior in a slightly desirable way, but that is what the character the Joker is and has always been about. The Joker is and will forever be an individual who breeds chaos and revels in the self-doubt that he creates in the minds of very ordinary men and women. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker is shown to be on a mission to bring out the worst in humanity because ‘all it needs is a little push’.
This Joker is a bit different; it looks at a society that is massively divided and portrays what the byproduct or culmination of it may look like. In that sense, it also reminds one of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and leaves it to the viewer’s judgment of where lines are crossed. It is one of those pieces of cinema like A Clockwork Orange where some might marvel at the storytelling while others despise it for it perhaps being a step too far. Either way, you should go watch it.