A movie review of
Directed by Todd Phillips
(Warner Bros., 2019)
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Certain films act as thresholds. To watch them is to cross over into greater understanding, some kind of deeper reflection, or perhaps a more resonant emotional connection to the film’s themes. I remember sitting in There Will Be Blood (2008), completely caught up by Daniel Day Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance as self-made oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, feeling as if I’d passed into a new awareness of humanity. To watch Plainview’s sociopathic deterioration into self-enclosed madness felt like being awakened to the perils of ambition and envy. I had a similar threshold experience a few years after when I finally got around to A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s postmodern novel about a psychopathic antihero named Alex and his degradation into violence. It was like a locked trunk had been opened for me, and the ugliest aspects of the human condition floated out.
But I hadn’t given much thought since to There Will Be Blood or Clockwork Orange until I sat down for Joker. This felt connection between the darkest iteration of the iconic comic book villain to date and a Plainview or an Alex was palpable. In the vein of these dark depictions, Joker feels like a high threshold into a new, yet known, brutal world. And I think that’s a characteristic of a remarkable film: it has the ability to carry you over thresholds and into reflective spaces. Some spaces are more unsettling than others. Like There Will Be Blood or Clockwork Orange, Joker brings a story about a man devolving into a kind of personal depravity in a way not unfamiliar to us and in a society mundanely identical to our own.
Joker is the traumatic story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a psychopathic middle-aged man with a borderline personality, a traumatic past, and a codependent bond to his depressive mother. Fleck works as a rent-a-clown, hired out to twirl signs or sing for sick children. His mother, Penny (Francis Conroy), is an emotionally crippled shut-in with a delusional story of a past love affair with Thomas Wayne — father to the inevitably orphaned Bruce Wayne, destined to become Batman.
Fleck’s relationship to his mother is the center of his trauma but by no means are the effects of that relationship contained within it. We move from having questions about their oddly eremite relationship to discovering, along with Arthur, the stark truth of her time as an asylum patient and her enabling role in the sexual abuse of her son by the hands of random men. The discovery leads to a process of self-actualization for Fleck marked by violence.
This is where we meet Arthur, at the cusp of a dark self-discovery. Bullied by strangers, held in disregard by social elites, and lost to an indifferent social system, Arthur takes solace within his fantasies and arms against his abusers. Fleck starts to gain a sense of identity by asserting himself against abusers and the system that breeds them. A symphony of destruction ensues. He murders three drunken elites accosting him on a train. He confronts his hatred for his mother in an act of murderous catharsis. He murders a former coworker who mocked and betrayed him. In an appearance on a local late-night show as a kind of gag guest, Arthur offers a climactic explanation for his antics then assassinates the show host on live television. And as an external reflection of Arthur’s internal world, Gotham City descends into violent expression.
Now, as a warning, viewers should prepare themselves. If, like me, your introduction to the Clown Prince of Crime came in 1989 with the polished performance of Jack Nicholson, you’ll need to adjust your expectations. Even Jared Leto’s punk rock gangster iteration (Suicide Squad, 2016) won’t prepare you for what Phoenix does with this archetype. Heath Ledger’s iconic rendition (The Dark Knight, 2008) gets us nearer the experience Joker brings but not all that near. Phoenix rewrote the role along the brutal lines of reality. I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief to spend two hours in Todd Phillip’s Gotham. It’s a shell, filled with what its citizens bring. The feel is that of a Memphis, or Atlanta, or Pittsburg, or New York.
The film’s dialogue is simple and direct.
Arthur Fleck: “I was wondering if you could ask the doctor to increase my medication.”
Social Worker: “Arthur, you’re on seven different medications. Surely they must be doing something.”
Arthur Fleck: “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.”
It’s a plainspoken movie, but what it says it says with unmistakable empathy.
In what marks the most sophisticated defiance of comic book movie otherness yet, Joker jolts us into a deeper awareness that these stories, these characters, aren’t all that far from the lives led by people right down the street or our own. There’s not a single heinous act, disorder, or social dynamic that isn’t commonplace. Not a single character with a speaking line such that whatever it was going on inside of them could not also be in me. Or the unsettling realization that a scripted world could exist to offer a stage and a part to someone so depraved and that that world looks so like mine.
This familiarity is the place into which Joker serves as threshold. This is where Joker’s emotional power resides. And this is where Christian viewers ought to pay attention. The film works like an operatic documentary of diagnosable depravity. Arthur embodies the convergence of neurological, emotional, familial, and communal degradation. He inhabits a body at war with itself living in a society at war with itself, and the conflict is all too common. There is nothing other in Joker. No intergalactic villains. No mythic bestowal of powers. No super serums. No gamma radiation, kryptonite, or promethean technology. Fleck is simply a mentally ill man with a past so traumatic he carries its pain in his body. His ascent to infamy is marked by the all too mundane pressures of an undeniably cruel world. This isn’t a film full of cowls and capes. It’s about masks, but not just those dramatically drawn in blood on whiteface. Joker shows us something of those relational masks we wear to hide inner ugliness. Under the mother mask, psychopathy. Under the social services mask, apathy. Under the wealth mask, injustice.
This familiarity with fallenness — and this is what was coming up in being reminded of characters like Daniel Plainview or Alex in A Clockwork Orange — given us in the form of a tragically traumatized man carries viewers into a deeper, more granular, more nuanced understanding of depravity. Honestly, I’ve always found discussions of the doctrine of depravity to be abstract. What does it mean for someone to be depraved, anyway? That evil so overtakes them that their every choice is tainted with a tinge of sadism? Is depravity mere selfishness? Absence of all moral reasoning? Is violence what marks the degree to which someone is depraved? Christians have spent the duration of their history hashing out what exactly falling short of the glory of God or being dead in trespasses means. Regardless of the theological position — Calvinist or Wesleyan, Orthodox or Pentecostal — conceptions of depravity often remain irregular around the margins.
But Joker, despite the film’s chaotic characters, offers invaluable clarity to just what we ought to mean when we speak of depravity. Joker drags depravity into conversation with trauma. It asks if we can conceptualize evil apart from a state-sponsored system, or if a bad man isn’t ultimately a sick man. And it asks us to consider those questions from a systematic perspective. In one of the film’s most prescient lines, Arthur asks his social worker, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Indeed, it is, but in a symbiosis with the crazy in here, in the mind, in the heart, intrapersonally. The insanity expands as Arthur begins to come into his own for the first time in his life. Depravity is dynamic. It moves in the direction of his pathology. Unwilling to remain a passive victim, Arthur begins to assert himself violently, creating ripples in the relational and social orders.
In a later session with that same social worker, Arthur asserts, “You don’t listen, do you? I don’t think you ever really listened to me. You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts. But you don’t listen. Anyway, I said, for my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” The notice others are taking is that which viewers are also taking in, and what felt so palpable to me: in its pain, hurt, and fear, the human condition moves in uncontained violence against the self and others. Every embodied action Arthur makes expands the fallen space we know so well. And we — spectators to the movie but participants in depravity — are situated in an inner and outer world that play on each other in disastrous ways.
When Arthur asks a television host, his live studio audience, and everyone tuned in at home what you get when you mix a “mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash,” he’s asking us what happens when a fallen world abuses a fallen man. The answer: we get what we deserve. We’re shown a depravity that’s unsanitary, unsettling, and all too salient a commentary on our own world.
Now, Christians might be hesitant to see a movie like Joker. It’s a dark, joyless experience that describes the tortured inner and outer worlds of someone with a traumatic past and a psychologically plagued present. Why, given my initial association with movies of hopeless self-erosion, would I recommend a movie such as Joker to believers?
First, as a film, Joker is a masterpiece of craftwork. The writing is strong. The story is sophisticated. The score is appropriately moody. The performances are excellent (go ahead and give Joaquin the Oscar now). But what sets Joker apart from other comic book movies, and what warrants it a place among films that have the power to carry us into richer, though perhaps darker, realities, is its ability to alter our experience. We can’t quite see things the same way again.
In thinking about the film’s ability to shift us into new understanding. I’m reminded of what C. S. Lewis said about one of the benefits of reading. Lewis observes that reading is the gained ability to see the world through others’ eyes. “The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books.”1 To apply Lewis’s desire to see through others’ eyes to film, Joker offers us the eyes of a disturbed man in a dysfunctional system and says, “get a good look at the world you’ve made.” It lends us the neurology of a neurotic within a body shaped by trauma. It asks that we walk the dank streets of Gotham so we might know they’re the streets on which we’ve taken up permanent residence. It shows us that characters like the Joker are all too fitting imitations of life in the society from which they’re born.
For the Christian, a film like Joker becomes a lens through which we see that the doctrinal lines we’ve drawn can leave great blank spaces, drawing boundaries around, but never coloring in, what exactly depravity looks like. But like soteriology or pneumatology or whatever-else-ology, theological areas like hamartiology and anthropology ought not be stripped of their reality. And those who want to understand depravity, who might want to fill in the doctrinal lines with depictions of real-life pain, ought not shy away from its nature, harrowing as it is. What we see through films like Joker is a visceral depiction of the doctrine to which we often blandly hold. Herein lies their value. They can make a way into the spaces we don’t want to inhabit. They diagnose the patients we want to see healed. They can expose the systems that need repair. They threshold us into those places that need healing.
Corey Latta holds MAs in religion and English as well as a PhD in twentieth-century literature. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016), When the Eternal Can Be Met: The Bergsonian Theology of Time in the Works of C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden (Pickwick Publishers, 2014), and coauthor of Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017). His forthcoming volume is called Serving the Work: Reflections on Christ and Creativity.
- C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 140.