October 8, 2019 – It is not a good sign when I start looking at my watch after the first 15 minutes of this movie, but I did. It did not help that the movie started a half hour late for no good reason, either. In addition, this is a long, slow-moving movie about a sad life turned deadly.
The reasons behind Arthur Fleck's (Joaquin Phoenix of “You Were Never Really Here”) descent into madness and murder are familiar to those who keep up with the news of mass shootings in this country over the years.
In fact, Fleck (AKA The Joker) seems not fundamentally different from James Eagan Holmes, the man with a Batman mask in his room, who dyed his hair orange, kind of like the Joker, before killing 12 people and injuring 58 more at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012 during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Holmes was declared to be mentally ill at his trial, and had been seeing a psychiatrist before the attack.
One difference between Fleck and Holmes, or the Joker as portrayed in “The Dark Knight” (2008) is that Fleck is not much of a planner. He just seems to bumble along, reacting to things that happen to him, and a lot of bad things happen to him. He says he believes in nothing and can't remember ever having a happy day. His psychiatric care and medications, holding his mental illness in check, are eliminated through budget cutbacks. He is violently beaten twice in the space of a few days. He learns deeply disturbing things about his family and his past that had been kept from him for years. He is ridiculed by his favorite talk show host, Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro). It isn't hard to see where this story is going.
Arthur Fleck lives in a slightly dystopian world, not much different from the Gotham City seen in some Batman movies, where crime is rampant, along with riots and outright anarchy, some of it inspired by Fleck's own actions. Downtrodden, neglected, ridiculed and beaten, Fleck gets a gun and fights back against his attackers. Descending deeper into madness and egged on by copycats and the media, he goes a step beyond his first three murders. He starts killing people he doesn't like. Violence, for Fleck, is his means of sending a message to society, a message that is heard, loudly, if not clearly.
There are some unmistakable political messages in this film. A protester holds up an upside down “resist” sign, associated with opponents of President Donald Trump. Fleck's psychiatric diagnosis includes narcissistic personality disorder. This is a disorder which is frequently used to describe President Trump's personality. Fleck lashes out irrationally against the powers that be (including billionaire politician Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne, a boy who would later become Batman).
Fleck's anger and disappointment is like those disaffected white male voters who supported President Trump because he was an outsider who promised to blow up an unfair political system. Other elements of the story bolster the conservative argument that guns are not the problem, instead, the problem is mental illness.
If the Joker were portrayed as anything other than an aggrieved white man, the reactions to this movie would change drastically. Imagine this same story with Arthur Fleck as an aggrieved black man, the subject of racist attacks, who retaliates by killing white people. Critical reaction to that would be very different, and probably the box office success of the film would be negatively affected as well.
The psychological journey of Arthur Fleck is interesting, but overall, I found this movie quite slow moving and predictable, despite a powerful performance by Phoenix. There is one surprise near the end, though. The film has a disturbing narrative that violence, as a reaction to severe emotional problems, can have its own rewards. When Fleck becomes the Joker, he also becomes famous and admired, achieving his dreams through murder.
This movie is a reflection of our society that cannot be ignored. There are a lot of people who can sympathize with the sad life of Arthur Fleck, who are deeply unhappy with their lives. Some of them turn to violence and become like the Joker. Others turn to leaders who give them a group to blame for their lack of success, while promising them better lives in return for their votes.
In this film, the Joker becomes the leader of a movement by accident, not by design. He is, in a sense, a populist. He is not like the populist politicians who have been elected in recent years. Instead, the Joker is a symbol of the shattered dreams, resentment and rage that led to recent populist election victories here and abroad. This film rates a C+.
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