Joker (2019) lashes out against the ruling elite

Does Joaquin Pheonix’s Joker live up to expectations?

5 stars

JOKER – final trailer

Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) is the story of Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Pheonix), his mental decline, and his underdog rise as an anarchist-extremist.

No doubt fans of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Batman’s long-standing antagonist went into a screening of Joker prepared to compare the two portrayals. Even I, despite not being a massive fan of the character or even the franchise, bought into the idea that Pheonix’s Joker must somehow pale in comparison. I assumed that Phillips would take some cues from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in creating his new version of The Joker, but he surprised me by how absolutely he managed to transform the character and my perception of him.

 

In outlining Joker’s past, his motivations, and his desires, Phillips succeeds in creating a realistic backstory that portrays Arthur as a vulnerable man who, as the rising action mounts, becomes more and more disillusioned by a society that has rejected him every step of the way.  In the beginning, it is hard not to see Arthur’s outbursts as him simply standing up for himself against the elitist bullies that dominate Gotham City and who see a disabled, unprotected man like Arthur as an easy target.

Having found his defence in the cold grip of a gun, Arthur’s newfound confidence creates previously unimaginable opportunities to extend his social reach and express his rage against the capitalist machine in Gotham

Joker 4

Joker is the proletariat uprising that Marx always dreamed of. The archetypal bourgeoise/proletariat narrative is blindingly obvious within the film, which, I think, does not detract from the narrative at all. The characters that represent the bourgeoisie, such as Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen) are somewhat two-dimensional in that they do not stray far from their purpose of spurring Arthur’s evolution on; in one memorable scene, memorable because it was almost laughable in that the opposition could not have been any clearer, Arthur asks Thomas for ‘a bit of warmth’ and Thomas, brace yourself, punches him in the face.

Then again, Joker is told from Arthur’s unreliable perspective. Perhaps extremists, or those with extremist beginnings, are apt to only see the bad. Maybe it is a given that Arthur would turn the TV on just as Thomas who, at this time, declares his intention to run for Major, calls the working class people of Gotham City ‘clowns’.

Joker clown costume
Arthur at work

Critical reception to Joker is split, with half of the reviewers labelling the film as a disappointing flop. I wonder whether this is because the film focusses much more on the underbelly of sensationalism, the step-by-step disenchantment Arthur experiences, rather than rash actions with no reason attached that TV News plasters across every platform.

I think that some people do not want to see Joker as just a man, or, more specifically, a man with a disability, and would instead prefer to believe that extremism grows from something us normal people cannot understand or counteract. Whilst Arthur’s triumph at the end of the film does not make me want to cheer for him, I do see the ending as the beginning of a revolution which, however needlessly violent and incendiary, is a reaction to poor living conditions and the desire for a more level playing field.

Joker without makeup
Arthur Fleck, sans mask

 My heart ached for Arthur. Joker is so compelling because the audience is welcomed, for what feels like the first time in the history of mainstream box office action films, into the world of the mentally ill. Pheonix and Phillips take the vaudeville-esque mask away from the previous, more cartoonish depictions of The Joker, and align him more with the superhero; in movies like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Iron Man (2008), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) the audience sees the loses, the betrayals, and the ultimate rise to power as the protagonists evolve and become more self-assured. This is all paralleled within Joker, and serves to show the fine-line balance between good and evil, especially when we see how mistreated Arthur is.

Much critical debate has surrounded what the film could cause. Could it cause extremism in young men? Could we see a rise in gun violence? Critical thought about Joker seems to forget that Arthur was lashing out against the system; cuts in mental health funding, long hours for low wages, abuse, to name just a few among a long list of other inequalities between the rich and the poor. Instead of rejecting art that clearly displays the ways in which these inequalities can create rebellious movements, perhaps critics should take a look at their own government and how it works to help the poor and vulnerable.

‘The Long Walk’: Stephen King’s Version of a Dystopian World

King’s dystopian world ‘The Long Walk’ operates on an opt-in basis.

While writers like Suzanne Collins and Margaret Atwood define their dystopian worlds by the lack of choice the characters have, Stephen King’s The Long Walk operates on an opt-in basis. In King’s vision of the future his protagonist Raymond Garraty, along with 99 other teenage boys, are chosen from a pool of applicants to participate in the annual long walk, a competition which ends with only one winner: the sole survivor.

The boys are followed by a group of armed guards who give the participants a warning if they walk slower than the stipulated four miles an hour for more than thirty seconds. Three strikes and you are out. In King’s world teens are murdered where they stand in a competition they volunteered for.

The walk is overseen by The Major, and the event is televised in major cities. Swarms of onlookers cheer as the teens become increasingly exhausted and suffer mental fatigue as they see their peers picked off one by one, fearful that it is them next. A day into the walk, Garraty is shocked and pleased to see:

a huge sign, letters with pine boughs across the front read:

GARRATY’S OUR MAN!!!

Aroostook County Parents’ Association

The reader wonders why thousands of teenage boys subject themselves to the walk, knowing that their chances of winning are infinitesimal. Unlike dystopian novels which present a moral message on the perils of treating women as a commodity (The Handmaid’s Tale), separating society into sectors (Brave New World), and banning the distribution of information (Fahrenheit 451), King does not create the walk for any other purpose than entertainment.

‘Walk or die, that’s the moral of this story.’

King’s story feeds on greed and the demand for engaging television. The boys apply for the walk because the prize is anything they desire, a stake just high enough to risk their life for. The community cheers the walkers on and watches them on television because they have been desensitised to gratuitous violence, and the American desire for more more more leads them to applaud the 100 boys for walking to their death. This twisted desire for entertainment means that Garraty is hailed as an all-American hero, ‘Maine’s own,’ willing to undertake the grueling task of dying for the sake of the public’s enjoyment.

The characters, as young as they are (Garraty is only sixteen), seem to be aware of their dire situation, which makes the premise all the more shocking. One walker asks, ‘There was a guy last year that crawled for two miles at four miles an hour after both of his feet cramped up at the same time, you remember reading about that?’ As the story goes on, King adds the arrogance of 100 teenagers to the list of why the walk was possible in the first place. The reader wonders whether anyone would have signed up to a girls only long walk.

Despite all of this, I am willing to suspend disbelief for a dystopian novel, and especially a dystopian novel as good as King’s. He fleshes out the characters and creates relationships with such realism that the reader is shocked when, having taken three warnings, Olson is murdered by the guards. The reader feels the joy of the walkers when an onlooker manages to give them watermelon without the guards intercepting it.

Like most of King’s novels, the ending is harrowing. Having outlasted his peers and won the walk, Garraty imagines that:

The dark figure beckoned, beckoned in the rain, beckoned for him to come and walk, to come and play the game. And it was time to play the game. There was still so far to walk.

The need for more continues as the delirious Garraty wanders off into the distance, unaware that he has won his prize because he cannot see past the need to go on, to strive for more in a consumerist world where even death has become a commodity that can be sold to the attentive viewer.