Midway through a screening of Joker this weekend at a Chicago theater, I leaned over to a friend seated next to me and whispered: “Is this the same movie that everyone has been talking about?”
I asked because what I was witnessing on-screen bore little resemblance to the ode to angry, young, white, “incel” men that I had heard so much about in media coverage of Joker leading up to its release. Instead, we got a fairly straightforward condemnation of American austerity: how it leaves the vulnerable to suffer without the resources they need, and the horrific consequences for the rest of society that can result.
This message is so blunt that even I, a Marxist and philistine, found its message a bit too clobbering. How mainstream commentators have missed it and drawn the exact opposite conclusion is baffling.
Arthur Fleck, the protagonist and eventual Joker, is a poor, young, white, mentally ill man who works as a clown and seems to enjoy it. In the film’s opening scene, he is beaten up by a rowdy group of teenagers, some of whom appear to be teens of color..
Watching this opening, I thought, here it is: in the very first scene, teenagers running wild on the streets of New York City, a classic rightwing trope in American cinema depicting a society (and its racialized underclass, in particular) that is out of control. We’ll soon be told it needs to be reined in by some old-fashioned law and order and cracking of skulls.
Yet in the locker room of the clown agency, when a coworker calls the teens “animals” and “savages”, Arthur explicitly rejects dehumanizing the teens. “They’re just kids,” he responds. Bruises visible on his body – a body for which Joaquin Phoenix lost 52 pounds ahead of filming, with a disturbingly protruding spine and ribs, that is physically ravaged by the austerity-racked society Arthur lives in, wasting away in front of our eyes – he defends his assailants and rejects his coworker’s racist epithets.
Since critics depicted this as a film for the far right, whose overtly racist views are well-known, I expected the depictions of characters of color to be bigoted. But interestingly, almost all of the violence he eventually metes out as he sinks deeper and deeper into a full breakdown – save for the movie’s final scene, at which point Joker’s nihilistic brutality has fully blossomed, now wanton and indiscriminate – is against white men, many of them wealthy.
A passing interaction with a neighbor, a single black mother who lives on his floor, leads to a disturbing and delusional romantic obsession with her . This culminates in a tense scene in which – on the verge of a full breakdown and after we realize the previous scenes of the two of them on a date and sitting at the hospital bedside of Arthur’s mother were completely imagined by him – he walks into her open apartment.
The viewer expects an act of violence against her, perhaps even a horrific scene of sexual assault, by the lonely man who wants the beautiful woman but can’t have her. In other words, the ultimate incel revenge fantasy. Instead, startled, she asks him to leave. He does.
Likewise, in a scene whose political message was so blunt that it could have appeared in a mid-century Stalinist propaganda film, his social worker and counselor – another black woman – with whom he has a tense but clearly significant relationship, is forced to tell him that due to recent budget cuts, their office will be shutting down. Arthur asks her where he’s going to get his medication; she has no answer for him.
“They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” she tells him, referring to those who cut the budget. “And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.”
The black, female public-sector worker is telling the white, male public-service user that their interests are intertwined against the wealthy billionaire class and their political lackeys who are slashing public services. Across racial and gender boundaries, the two have a common class enemy.
You can’t get much less subtle, or much more diametrically opposed to the right’s worldview, than this.
It is those budget cuts that drive Arthur deeper into madness. Similar attempted cuts likely drove sanitation workers to strike, resulting in the piled-up garbage constantly visible on Gotham’s streets. These are clear allusions to New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis and the austerity it produced, which soon spread to the rest of the country.
Elites’ condescending responses to the widespread suffering make things worse. Billionaire Thomas Wayne condemns Arthur’s murder of his three employees (representing young, arrogant, rich Wall Street types) on the subway by calling the average person seething in the streets “clowns”. Don’t they know that he wants to help them, the ultra-rich mayoral candidate asks. He is irritated he even has to explain this. His comments merely stoke the already burning fires of resentment, with Wayne’s obliviousness at their misery rubbing salt in the wounds of average Gotham residents and driving them to the streets to protest Wayne and elites like him in clown masks.
And, of course, when Arthur sneaks into a high-class theatre and confronts Wayne about what Arthur has been led to believe by his ailing mother – that Wayne, her former employer, is Arthur’s father – the genteel billionaire, dressed in a full tuxedo, literally punches Arthur in the face. Again, political subtlety is not this film’s stock and trade. How could reviewers miss this?
What Arthur – and scores of others like him in Gotham and our own society – needs is a fully-funded Medicare for All or NHS-style health system that includes robust mental health services that provide him with the counseling services and medication that can save him (and others around him) from his unceasingly “negative thoughts” and violent impulses.
He needs public programs that can provide a warm, encouraging environment for his creative impulses, allowing him to perform standup comedy or perform as a clown without becoming a laughingstock on national television or getting canned by an uncaring boss. He needs wages for his care work for his infirm mother or a robust elder care system that can respectfully take her under its care. He needs high-quality housing he can afford.
Arthur has more than his share of problems, but a few of them would have been solved, or at least adequately and humanely managed, in a society whose budgets were oriented more towards people like him than Wayne. But he does not live in that society, and neither do we. Instead of public services and dignity, he gets that most American of consolation prizes: a gun, and the sense of respect that, while ultimately hollow, has long eluded him.
Joker’s ending is bleak and one whose general thrust we knew going into the film: in addition to the three Wall Street types, an old mother, a coworker, a talkshow host and a billionaire couple have been murdered in cold blood; rioters in clown masks are running wild in the streets, cheering Joker on the hood of a cop car. In the final scene, Arthur is again speaking to a social worker, but now in handcuffs in an asylum. But it’s too late to reach him, because he’s no longer Arthur – he’s the Joker, and the Joker has no qualms about killing her, too.
Rosa Luxemburg once famously framed the choice for our future as that of socialism or barbarism. Joker is a portrait of a society that has chosen barbarism. No one wants to see violence erupt in such a situation, but we shouldn’t be surprised when it does.
In the real world, we aren’t yet at that breaking point. And unlike Gotham, we have alternate paths on offer – represented best by the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose presidential campaign speaks to that roiling anger but channels it into humane and egalitarian directions. If we don’t take it, and that anger continues to find a home in reactionary outlets, the barbarities we see in Joker might start looking horrifyingly familiar.