Jason Arment

Joker: What Mainstream Critics Miss & Why They Miss It

(Joaquin Phoenix as Joker; image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Jason Arment examines the movie Joker and illustrates what mainstream critics failed to see, or at least what they failed to connect as current, real-world events.

 

Before Joker came out, there was an unmistakable wave of anti-Joker sentiment expressed by a wide swath of mainstream critics across all forms of media. This is when many cinephiles started to really take notice, as such bad press often heralds works of great note, or should I say great notoriety?

A film such as this is like an act of nature: Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is a beautiful trainwreck, where feelings from violence-fueled power surge to overwhelm, then replace, isolation and loneliness. Arthur Fleck—A.F., A Fuck-up — “You’re a fuck-up!” his boss yells while firing Fleck. And that’s what Arthur is: a loser, have-not, mentally ill, a person Thomas Wayne calls a clown for being rich early in the film during a television interview.

Gotham, as a city, remains nebulous. And although we see maps of the city, the audience doesn’t see much into Gotham’s culture that would set it apart from any other caustic urban environment, flooded with trash and infested by rats. The city cuts funding to social services, and the impact is widely felt.

As a character, Joaquin Phoenix does a great job of bringing Arthur Fleck to life. The film’s writing is on point enough, and the little details which enrich the sets lead not only to other parts of the film’s universe, but out of it and into real-world events. These connections seem to be another huge stumbling block for mainstream critics. I haven’t heard much about how KILL THE RICH, printed across so many newspapers in the film, has been a political slogan used by anarchists, and others, in times of great political upheaval for many years.

 

(Joker, theatrical release movie poster, Warner Bros. Pictures)

 

I did hear about how, like, it’s so crazy the clocks never change time during the movie, how they’re the same time throughout—wrong! There are several shots where, from other characters’ points of view, the time is the correct time. There are actually a great deal of parallels with other films Robert De Niro is in, who incidentally has an important role in Joker. Taxi Driver and King of Comedy spring to mind, and the film is rife with similarities. One similarity that Travis Bickle has to Arthur Fleck is racism: they are both racist characters. They both see black people who aren’t there, and black people take the position of the “other” and are demonized and eroticized.

And, like how Taxi Driver isn’t about the racism of Travis Bickle, Joker isn’t about the racism of Arthur Fleck. Unlike Taxi Driver, I don’t think Joker had black characters changed to white characters to help minimize overt racism. What the movies’ antiheroes have in common are mental illness, isolation, maladjustment, severe trauma, and a history that involved a great deal of violence surrounding them, and even acted out by the antihero, at least in Travis Bickle’s case, who had just returned from serving as a Marine in Vietnam. In the case of Arthur Fleck, he had an especially brutal life as a child. Both antiheroes are unreliable narrators—don’t trust their eyes or ears or thoughts.

Some who watched the film felt badly for empathizing with Arthur Fleck, as he is the bad guy. Other folks decided to interrupt showings of the movie by walking out or making a scene about how they didn’t feel safe despite armed guards being stationed at many theaters during the opening weeks of the film.

As Joker is set to be one of the highest-grossing R-rated movies ever, I think it might be good for everyone to understand what the Streisand effect is: what you try to suppress will surely make progress. As for the mainstream media critics failure to do their jobs, it’s like the song that closes out the film, “Send In the Clowns.”

 

 

Jason Arment is the author of Musalaheen, a war memoir published by University of Hell Press.

 

Jason Arment

Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chai, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Florida Review, and Phoebe. Jason lives in Denver.

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