The American movie-goer is a mixed lot when it comes to black humor and dark satire. Many of us feel a bit confused, if not shameful indulging in movies like A Clockwork Orange, submitting to the absurdist comedy of a maniac singing an old-fashioned Gene Kelly song during a violent robbery. Some of us don’t.
This is where the sadistic humor of Todd Phillips’ Joker either “kills” or “dies,” depending on how flexible your funny bone is. Apparently mine is as flexible and emotionless as a Soviet gymnast. I laughed during Joker—a lot.
I laughed when it seemed everyone else was quietly aghast or whispering something along the lines of “My God, the children.” I connected with the film’s aestheticization of violence, like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, when the blood gushed out of the limbs of Japanese henchmen like a busted fired hydrant. But whether you laugh at absurd sadomasochism or vaguely campy gore it says nothing about whether you’re a functioning member of society or a future school shooter—it just means you connect with the inside joke.
This is important. Black humor is not always well-packaged with warning labels like a cartoonish 1980s slasher film. Some people simply don’t get it. Can they laugh at an origin story by a “bro humor” connoisseur about a white incel who belly-laughs when he kills? Unlikely. This simply isn’t entertaining to people who view the cinema as progressive propaganda tool.
I heard a lot of confusing chatter about Joker that portrayed the film as a kind Black Panther for incels. I didn’t see that film. Joker’s only agenda is to tell a story that is extremely unfashionable in 2019: the story of alienation from the perspective of a white male who likes to kill people. Rachel Maddow didn’t like this film. This is the sort of moralizing snoot that led to A Clockwork Orange being cinematic contraband in the league of Faces of Death, rather than farcical masterpieces like Monty Python.
By 1973, Kubrick had withdrawn his two-year old Clockwork from circulation after a rash of copycat crimes were committed in a garish mimicry of the movie. The tabloids blamed Kubrick’s film. They didn’t get the joke. The disconnect between humorist and the uptight critic is no better underscored by this scene in which the Joker, who rehearses a joke in his head, giggles maniacally, and refuses to elaborate on the punchline to an Africa-American social worker:
“You wouldn’t get it anyhow,” says Arthur Fleck, which is the birth name of Phillips’ Joker.
I got it. Did you? I relate to Fleck. But I don’t need to relate to him. Most people today have to see themselves in the characters they study—or they feel ignored, like Arthur Fleck. If you don’t relate to him, and you’re someone who views the cinema as an educational pamphlet, then you won’t get the Joker. You never will. You’ve refrigerated your dark sense of humor and forgotten about it as if it were a bag of unpopular green peas in the farthest corner of the icebox. You either hold your nose at things that make you feel uncomfortable—because you can’t relate to them—or convince others to trash it to relieve you of the emotional baggage associated with being asked to sympathize with someone who doesn’t think or look like you.
“Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy,” Fleck tells us, as we psychoanalyze him to see if he’s clinically insane or just wrestling with demons, like the rest of us. Every single male over the age of 35 is a little bit like Arthur Fleck. This is why this film is so divisive; lonely and middle-aged men don’t want to look in the mirror, and women don’t want to empathize with them during a period in American history where every straight white male is a misogynistic time bomb.
“Things are tense…” a social worker tells Fleck, a professional clown who takes seven different psychotropic drugs to control his depression—which is scored to a thick cello that lifts a cloud of old-timey dust over the film and turns alienation into a seduction, like Bernard Herrmann’s horn section in Taxi Driver. But the film’s most agonizing instrument is actor Joaquin Phoenix’s unscrewed laugh (a mental condition, we’re told), which juxtaposes the film’s weltschmerz like a tank of laughing gas at a wake. This is one of the film’s many question marks:
Is Fleck’s laughter causing him to suffocate in agony or orgasm really intensely? Once you discover the answer you’re then required to decide if you’re willing to laugh along with him as he stabs a man in the skull with a pair of scissors or plugs holes into a group of Wall Street bankers (which foreshadows the origin story of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which the film doesn’t ignore).
But Joker is not a superhero movie or a dazzling anti-hero spectacle like Birds of Prey. You will never see this Joker become part of a universe or packaged as an action figure ahead of the holiday season. This is a movie about mental illness with no other political message beyond its criticism of our failing mental healthcare industry (when Fleck’s mental healthcare funding is cut, any sense of togetherness he had explodes like a deck of poorly shuffled playing cards).
In many ways, this is the most unique superhero film—as it actually says something that goes beyond the tropes of representation and resistance to Trump. Joker is a film about the nervous breakdown of Arthur Fleck inside a concrete coffin that oozes with the same garbage and rodents as Travis Bickle’s nihilistic New York. The difference between the two characters is complicated, but Bickle is more self-righteous—Fleck is a giggling psychopath, not a revolutionary (though he becomes one).
“I don’t believe in anything,” Fleck tells the studio audience of Live! with Murray Franklin (a tacky ‘70s late-night show with De Niro playing the role of an empty but slick host). Nihilism makes moralists and finger-waving millennials feel like they’re being taunted by a freckled little monster with a bowl cut. As a solipsistic character study, Joker is deeply insightful study of the wall that exists between upper-class normies and the jobless maniacs screaming kill all normies; it’s asking the audience to sympathize with an involuntary-celibate adult who seems caught in a mental storm; it’s asking us to sympathize with a hyper-lonely and broken clown with a laughing disorder who seems to only care about one thing:
To be seen by the people who’ve ghosted him or treated him like a joke.
The only person who treats Arthur Fleck like a human being is a relentlessly taunted midget who works at the clown rental agency Fleck is employed at, when everyone else around him—include social workers, his mother, a black woman he has a crush on—view him as either a burden or a pariah. The dimmest criticism of this film is that it lacks a sense of social awareness and responsibility. Why? Because Phillips, as we’ve learned in recent interviews, felt no moral obligation to lob protests at “toxic masculinity” or “white supremacy” with his film; none of the heroes in the film are POC, female, or gay—though it’s worth noting that Joker is at his most liberated when he lowers his masculine facade and flirts with his drag queen persona on the couch of Live! with Murray Franklin, before everything descends into anarchy.
This leaves us with a puzzle: how much of what Arthur Fleck experienced is real or just the symptom of a delusional mind? I won’t spoil the Joker, but if Phoenix doesn’t win an Oscar, it will be because he was nominated alongside someone who advances the discourse in a way Joker does not.
Art Tavana is a L.A.-based writer and culture critic. He’s been published in Penthouse, Playboy, L.A. Weekly, National Review, and Vice.