Hidden in the darkness of themes, setting, and characters, Joker is a film that is both dense and nuanced in symbolism, message and its reflection of our times. Although it can be a challenge at times to watch, (it is a hard R )for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Joker has something to say to and about us and presents Christ’s Gospel in a unique way.
The aim of the film, set in 1981 Gotham City is to “pre-boot” the Joker character and part of the Batman franchise by providing background and insight into how Arthur Fleck became Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur is one of both power and subtlety. Fleck is a down on his luck clown for hire and wannabe comedian who is struggling against poverty, crime, the cruelty of others, as well as his and his mother’s mental illnesses. Arthur is just on the edge of functioning and his mother (Francis Conroy) is just over the edge. For Arthur and his mother, if past and present are prologues, their future is utterly void of light and hope. As the story develops it is evident the majority of the Gotham’s citizens are “have-nots” and also succumbing to the downward pull of the city.
In the face of so many challenges and afflictions, one is tempted to compare Arthur to Job of the Old Testament. But even in this comparison, Arthur loses out as Job, prior to his afflictions, had a fulfilled and happy life, something Arthur has never enjoyed. The only respite Arthur has from his struggles is through his fantasy of being a successful comedian and being on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) Show, Gotham’s version of Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show. Because Arthur is in almost every scene, the audience as well has little relief in witnessing the increasing struggles and decline Arthur experiences as he slowly transforms into Joker.
There are two cultural references in Joker that have the effect of characters “breaking the fourth wall” and addressing the audience, the Sinatra song “That’s Life” and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times.” It’s hard to imagine a viewer not leaving the theater without having “That’s Life” playing as an earworm. Given its repeated use and prominent placement, it is hard not to interpret it as Phillips’s comment on life both within and beyond the film. This statement is given more voice by Phillips’s inclusion of Modern Time. Like Arthur Fleck, and many of Gotham’s struggling class who are on the verge of rioting against “the Rich,” Chaplin’s “Tramp” struggled in Modern Times to adapt to life in the machine age where his purpose as a laborer and identity as a human being are stripped away resulting in a downward social and mental spiral.
In Joker, Chaplin’s Modern Times is shown as part of a High Society, Gala. The irony is hard to miss as “The Rich” of Gotham City gather in an exquisite theater, their laughter at the “Tramp” skating on the verge of disaster, set against the shouting of protestors whose anger is on the verge of boiling over into rage. Through these two references, Todd Phillips is stating “that’s life” in Gotham, as well as our modern times and place.
A major byproduct of our modern times, as well as Gotham, is garbage. Part of the setting for Joker is a garbage strike that has ratcheted up the misery for most of Gotham’s residents. Gotham’s garbage strike symbolizes the refusal of much of society to attend to the emotional refuse that is a consequence of our life in modern times. Rather than do the necessary work to remove our emotional baggage, it is easier to ignore it by wrapping it up and putting it on the curb outside our consciousness. In Joker, the consequences of garbage piling up in the streets are super-rats. For us, the consequence of internalizing fear, anger, and discontent is dysfunction, whether in the form of opiate and other drug use, mass shootings, or increasing tribal segregation.
One of the more controversial elements of the film is the depiction of mental illness. Some believe Joker depicts those with mental illness in stereotypical negative lights. While there is a long history of films depicting mental illness in false, harmful lights, Phillip’s portrayal is not of mental illness, but rather a reflection of the shameful way much of society views and treats persons with mental illness. Arthur voices this point when he observes in his journal “the worst part of having a mental illness is the world expects you to act as if you don’t have it.”
Through Arthur, Todd Phillips is lifting up the tendency in our modern time to blame individuals for their mental illness. Such culpability often results in individuals not seeking treatment, living under the stress of acting as if they do not have their illness and then being judged when their illness is manifest. This stress often magnifies the symptoms and maladaptive behavior resulting in a cycle of stress, flair-ups, judgment, and more stress.
Perhaps the darkest element of Joker is the lack of a hero and suggestion of hope. While it is easy to see Joker as the villain, Arthur’s accountability is more ambiguous, as is that of Gotham society. Arthur did not set out to be Joker, he wanted to be a clown and comedian, but he could not overcome the obstacles of poverty and physical and emotional abuse that caused or contributed to his mental illness.
Though he believed himself to be the only person who could save Gotham, Thomas Wayne, (Brett Cullen) the uber-wealthy industrialist and father of Bruce Wayne repeatedly failed Arthur when given the opportunity to intervene. Gotham society likewise failed to protect Arthur as a child or provide effective care and therapy for him as an adult. During one of his social work meetings Arthur tells his caseworker, “you don’t listen to me” to which his caseworker acknowledges such and then tells him their program has been cut and he is on his own to negotiate his plan of care.
In Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches the actions or inactions of people lead to blessings or woes. Those who seek to live in, by, and for Christ and the Kingdom of God will receive blessings after their woes. Those who live in, by, and for worldly success will receive woes after their earthly blessings collapse. By offering woes of laughter and condemnation rather than blessings of concern and care to Arthur and others who are vulnerable and suffering, Wayne and all of Gotham experience the woes of their indifference through the rise of Joker and his disciples. Phillips concludes the film by punctuating this reality of woe with the reprise of “That’s Life.”
Ironically, it is in the presentation of the utterly woeful reality of life in Gotham and modern times where one finds Jesus in Joker. What all the money, power, and professed good intentions of the Thomas Waynes and other features of Gotham society cannot to, the humble love, grace, and power of Jesus can do. The Good News in Joker is that in Christ we are not destined for Gotham; rather in Christ we are children of God assured of a place in God’s Kingdom where there are no woes, but only blessings upon blessings.
Joker is rated R for Language, and Violence