In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock created a trailer for Psycho unlike any other. Instead of editing together a composite of actual scenes from the movie, he took audiences on a six-minute tour of the Bates Motel and mansion, telling them where certain murders would take place — including the famous “ba-a-a-athroom” — without revealing who would be killed, or by whom. He also warned audiences that they would not be admitted to the theater after the film had begun, a revolutionary concept in an era when it was common to enter a theater whenever you happened to arrive and then stay through until it had looped back to your personal starting point — when you would get up and leave, often uttering the phrase, “This is where I came in.” Some theaters took Hitch’s kitschy trailer one step further, assuring audiences that medical personnel would be on the premises to treat the fainthearted.
I was reminded of this innovative marketing plan during the week before Joker opened, when somber-faced newscasters offered advice to those who planned to see it: “Look around for people who might be in the theater alone”; “Have a plan if the theater is attacked”; and “Always know where two exits are located.” Despite their somber faces I had to wonder — what’s their motive here? Was it just helpful advice? Or was there more? Did I detect a tinge of hope that a big news story was on the horizon, a shooting of hurricane proportions? Or was the hype part of the marketing scheme, focused more on helping the advertisers than the viewers? Certainly I sensed a bit of hypocrisy from an industry that calls for gun control in its political posturing while producing films full of violence.
It’s the sympathetic victimization of the Joker that troubles most fans and many critics, yet it’s what makes the character so fascinating.
The news hype led me to wonder whether I should risk the copycats and wannabes who might be goaded into taking a gun into a packed theater. Did I feel lucky? Well did I, punk? I also expected a film full of torture and gore, based on the warnings, which made me wary. In addition, fans carped about the audacity of creating a sympathetic backstory for Batman’s most famous nemesis, a psychologically twisted character steeped in pure evil. Meanwhile, the New York Times wondered in its review what all the fuss was about. I decide to find out for myself.
It’s a terrific movie, and would be so whether or not it was a backstory for a Batman character; the Batman references that weave in and out of the story are surprising and satisfying but not necessary. The movie could stand on its own as a film tracing the dark psychological journey of a man struggling to find happiness and acceptance while dealing with psychiatric issues stemming from a tortured childhood. It’s the sympathetic victimization of the Joker that troubles most fans and many critics, yet it’s what makes the character so fascinating. In his journal the Joker writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” That’s probably true, and most of us are guilty of having had that expectation.
The film is set in 1970s Manhattan — er, I mean Gotham — when Times Square was home to derelicts, gangs, and XXX peepshows. A Guiliani-esque voice excoriating the filth and promising to clean it up is heard on the radio as the film opens. Little does he know the filth that is building up in one of his citizens.
When it does happen, the onscreen violence is shockingly quick and bloody, but not gruesome.
Before becoming the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a wannabe comedian who works as a clown-for-hire, writes potential jokes in the journal his psychiatrist has prescribed as therapy, and lives with his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) — dotes on her, really. He washes her hair while she’s taking a bath, smiles when she tells him to “put on a happy face,” and crawls into bed with her to watch “The Murray Franklin Show” –a program starring Robert De Niro and based not-so-loosely on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” The distinctive Ed McMahon chuckle of Murray’s sidekick on the couch is a subtle contrast to Arthur’s uncontrollable stress-induced laughter, a malady akin to Tourette’s Syndrome. In a later scene he curls up beside his mother’s pillow à la “A Rose for Emily” (a scene also alluded to in the Psycho trailer). Something is not quite right in the Fleck home. The Psycho connection I noted before seeing the movie turns out to be fairly apt, and not just for the marketing scheme. A bit of Marnie enters into this story as well.
Less bloody than any Tarantino flick, Joker has a way of creating suspense that is more akin to Hitchcock than to a slasher or gangster film. In fact, much of the killing takes place off screen, leaving the viewer to wonder what actually happened in an eerie, “surely he didn’t . . . ?” kind of hopefulness. The soundtrack, heavy on deep bass bowing and street percussion, and the lighting, full of flickering shadows, is also reminiscent of Hitchcock’s style. When it does happen, the onscreen violence is shockingly quick and bloody, but not gruesome. Very crazy, and very effective.
What makes this film work is its star. Joaquin Phoenix reaches deep into the quirks and self-deceptions of a man both victimized and victimizer, a man who laughs because he’s crying. He deliberately avoided portraying the symptoms of any single disability because he didn’t want audiences to smugly diagnose the Joker and thus think they understand him. Phoenix said in an interview, “I was never certain what was motivating him. I have my own opinion. I think I know what it is for me. But I wouldn't want to impose on anyone who hasn't seen the movie." This makes his character utterly unpredictable and devastatingly dangerous.
Artie’s killing sprees are often followed by an oddly erotic celebratory dance made more macabre by Phoenix’s 52-pound weight loss to prepare for the role. Phoenix said of his extreme dieting, “What I didn't anticipate was this feeling of kind of fluidity that I felt physically. I felt like I could move my body in ways that I hadn't been able to before. And I think that really lent itself to some of the physical movement that started to emerge as an important part of the character." That fluidity of motion extends to a fluidity of character, moving between pathos and demonic psychosis.
Should we empathize with a school shooter, if we discover that he had a tortured youth? Does victimhood give the criminal a pass?
So what is Joker’s own backstory? I won’t reveal too much, but I will say that a couple of moments made me gasp with surprise. Like many kids with tortured backgrounds, Artie is isolated, lonely, and frustrated. He’s picked on, bullied, beaten, and laughed at. His dream of becoming a standup comedian is thwarted by his handicap of uncontrollable laughter that worsens with the adrenaline that comes from facing an audience.
Moreover, his therapist is pretty useless. She provides pills when he asks for them and recommends he keep a journal. She asks him questions, but seems not to listen to the answers. He wants help, but he isn’t getting much of it. And what little he is getting comes to an end when funding is cut by the mayor (yes, we can blame the government for creating the Joker). This too feels like a warning about the dangers lurking in school hallways today, where troubled kids are allowed to fester without help until they erupt with a cascade of gunfire. Zazie Beetz, who plays Artie’s love interest, rejected the idea of the Joker as a sympathetic character but told an interviewer, “It’s kind of an empathy toward isolation, and an empathy towards what is our duty as a society to address people who slip through the cracks in a way. There is a lot of culture of that right now. So is it empathy for that or just an observation on personalities who struggle?”
Good question. Should we empathize with a school shooter, if we discover that he had a tortured youth? Does victimhood give the criminal a pass? We are definitely made to feel sorry for Artie, and thus to understand his motivation for killing, even as we are horrified by what he does. For that matter, is it fair to see Bruce Wayne as a hero and Artie Fleck as a villain, when both are driven by a desire for justice and revenge? This is where Arthur Fleck departs from Batman’s Joker. Joker is amoral, detached, cold, and brilliant. Arthur is all emotion, his tormented laughter coming from a place of deep personal pain. The Joker is heartless; Artie is all heart. The result is a fascinating case study of a psycho.