Joker Dancing on the Stairs
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Joker (2019): an affresco of madness

I went into the cinema to watch Joker by Todd Phillips without knowing much about either the movie and the character: I had watched the previous rendition of it of Heath Ledger and the older one of Jack Nicholson, both quite different, but I had never read the comic books, nor watched any of the previous movies of the director. I was mostly a blank page on which the movie would write on, and I urge you to go watching it as close as possible as this state.

That’s because the movie lends itself to multiple interpretations, multiple finales and even multiple meanings of the whole plot. Not even that is sure with Joker. The least you expect from the movie, the more particulars you will be able to catch while watching it.

I took a good 48 hours after the first watch to put order on all the scenes and come up with a proper review.

I’ll first speak, briefly, of the technical aspects of the movie: cinematography is stunning, with plenty of “wallpaper-perfect” shots and a gritty depiction of Gotham City, heavily inspired by 70s New York. Joaquin Phoenix‘s acting is worth alone the cost of the ticket, taking charge of the movie from the beginning till the last seconds, with a deep, convincing rendition of the character that will make you overcome the slow moments (there are a few). Take the movie as a psychological drama about the Joker and it won’t feel as slow as some viewers lamented.

Joker Laughing
Joker Laughing

With that aside, let’s move to what the movie means/meant to me. Spoilers from now, you’ve been warned.

Joker’s Plot: a Clockwork Orange for our era

The plot itself is pretty much straightforward, even minimal: the Joker, Arthur Fleck, is a middle-aged man that has been trying to become a comedian since ever, ever failing, ever more delusional about his capabilities of making people laugh. Through a series of events, he becomes even more delusional, more embittered and progressively descending into “evil” as the movie progresses, to the end where he embodies perfectly the Joker character, a madly laughing, killing psychopath.

Sounds easy, without possible interpretations. Wrong. It’s far from it. Whereas the guys of A Clockwork Orange were annoyed, middle class people who committed crimes for the fun of it, for the experience and the enjoyment they get out of them, there was never any need for them to be criminals. They chose to, society wasn’t pushing them to, quite the opposite, they simply didn’t want to follow the path their parents would have liked them and went astray, quite astray.

Joker is poor. His life is of the lowest quality possible, bordering homelessness. He would have loved to have been part of the society of London in the 60s, behaving well and spreading laughters around him with his jokes. Joker wants to be normal, the A Clockwork Orange guys don’t.

The Joker on his full criminal rampage
The Joker on his full criminal rampage

The similarities of the 2 movies are instead in the violent critique of society of their times, with one blaming the rigid education of the brits and this one the selfishness, narcissism, and downright meanspiritedness of the society as a whole. Whereas in the Kubrick’s movie the society is somewhat “good”, notice the quotes, Joker’s is “bad”, crumbling, everybody scrambling for themselves. Joker would have been a victim of the guys of A Clockwork Orange, not a perpetrator. Yet the movie convincingly brings you to believe how he actually could be also a member of those gangs by the end, in a sublime character arc.

Anybody that feared the movie would exalt violence and give reason for young males to be justified in their hate against the world should not fear it. The Joker is not a character to be admired but to be pitied. His descent into the darkness of his own folly is so throughout that he cannot be loved, admired nor even partly justified by the end of the movie. He would laugh at the aversion therapy of A Clockwork Orange.

The most mad Joker?

He is in fact already mad at the very beginning, just a different type of mad than at the end. I say here “mad” in the most wide interpretation of the word possible, as he could be described as anywhere from just shy and delusional to criminally insane. You can take whatever side of the character of the Joker from this movie, you will have plenty of signs both confirming and denying your take. It’s an impossible to define character. That’s the core of the fascination he emanates.

Joker and Mad patient
Joker and Mad patient

For sure, whereas Ledger’s take was more nihilistic and more traditionally criminal, Phoenix’s wonderful rendition of Joker is the craziest one. He reminded me of the schizophrenia of Syd Barrett of the early Pink Floyd. With a deep difference though.

Syd was talented and somehow helped by his friends to develop his talent, but he was unwilling/unable to. The Joker here is not talented, even if he believes he can be successful, and is ver willing to work more in the stand-up comedy art, but nobody around him is neither willing to help nor believing in him. The madness of Syd was deep inside, unrelated to the way the world treated him, the Joker’s came also due to the inability of the society to help and understand him. There’s no Pink Floyd around Arthur Fleck to support him, just a bunch of semi-failed clowns that mostly ignore him. Psychiatrists don’t offer much help either, his mum is old, weak and catatonic. He is alone, and from the loneliness the madness sprouts.

By 2/3 of the movie he learns to accept his madness, or version of reality, and starts embodying it, revelling in it, making the rage his raison d’etre, his motivation. He is beyond any cure, any help, any salvation. He is rotten inside, the madness has taken root and won’t go.

What at the beginning of the movie was an uncontrollable laughter and a general shyness, have mutated into hate-fueled criminal insanity.

A splendid affresco on madness

Most of the reviews of Joker talk about his relationship with society, his abuses and how society can cause this madness. A critique of our society, basically. And they are not wrong, absolutely. But I felt for the 2 days after I watched the movie that there was more, that the movie is a more complex tale than this.

Then it dawned on me. As with the previous review I wrote about Blade Runner 2049, I found out a different interpretation. Where Blade Runner 2049 was mostly took by fans and critics as a sci-fi movie, of a much lesser philosophical extent than its predecessor, I argued that it boiled down to the single question of: what makes us humans?

Similarly with Joker I believe the question is: what is madness?

The Merriam-Webster has under the definition of “mad”:

completely unrestrained by reason and judgment : unable to think in a clear or sensible way

which makes the point of being mentally sane or insane a matter of being able to use reason and judgement, to clearly think. Reason being defined as:

a rational ground or motive

still from the Merriam-Webster. So by being “rational”, we can consider ourselves “sane” or not. I am aware that technically these are not accurate definitions as the mental issues are way more nuanced. I am no doctor so I am talking about the message coming from the movie, more than what is the definition in real life. I bet the director also was talking to a audience of non-experts in the field.

Joker reflection in the mirror
Joker reflection in the mirror

The Joker is acting irrationally? We can say so. Criminally irrational. We would feel inclined to pinpoint him as “mad”, along with the rioters that commit crimes following his example. They are not acting much differently than him, albeit for different reasons. But this way we would base the rationality vs irrationality of a person on whether his acts would be also considered crimes or not. That’s just a part of what defines somebody “mad”.

The movie is full of “mad” characters.

Annoyed guys throwing chips at a girl in the metro for fun (again a wink to A Clockwork Orange), then making fun of the Joker just because he was uncontrollably laughing. Thus, basically, without understanding his innocuous behaviour. Not acting rationally.

Boys stealing from the Joker and then hitting him, in the very first scene of the movie, without any reason. Nor rationality.

People rioting in the streets to the point of lynching 2 policemen just out of frustration with the poverty they feel the government is keeping them in, feeling justified to kill and steal around. Criminally mad?

The own Joker’s mum consciously ignoring the abuse he was receiving from her boyfriend, then believing that the mayor-to-be of Gotham City would help her, for years. There’s no much rationality in this.

I could go on. There are plenty of “mad” behaviours shown in the movie which we would not normally call them “madness” because they don’t commit crime or are not violent acts or seems to be out of context in characters that during their daily life act normally, following society’s rules and showing good manners. We disregard their crimes as single episodes in a otherwise sane and normal person. We don’t concede as much leeway to those like the Joker.

Put on a Happy Face
Put on a Happy Face

The Joker sees thing differently. He keeps saying throughout the movie “why are you all so awful?”. He puts always an happy face despite the difficulties and wonder why the rest of society can’t or won’t. He is not directly referring to madness but in general wondering why some people keep being nasty at others for no reasons, without any rationality. That is the trigger that over time makes him feel entitled to express his most basic, violent and beastly instincts. It’s like he had to endure the “awfulness” of multiple people for years without society condemning them and doesn’t understand why he cannot be “awful” too. He’s out of touch with reality, mad in our book. But he points our attention towards smaller, less criminal acts of “awfulness” that we witness in our daily life from time to time and ask ourselves where is the rationality, the clear and sensible way of thinking of the dictionary that makes us justify or ignore them while immediately condemn the homicides and of the Joker. He is the criminal, but society around him is no less nasty nor criminal, at times, than him.

Why do we excuse small acts of irrationality but don’t with the Joker?

We like to put a tag of “madness” on those whom we like to think we have nothing similar to. To those whom we would never believe we would share anything with, without considering that the seed of those acts is sometimes in many of us too, just hidden, refrained, bridled, stifled. The Joker decided to let his madness seed sprout, in the most rational decision he ever takes in the movie. Yet that it is the moment we would start considering him mad. A subtle irony of a marvellous movie.

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

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