In a few ways, Joker is similar to Black Swan. Both movies deal with the psychological deterioration of their main character—Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), respectively. Both build to a climactic performance in front of a live audience where the balance of sanity finally tips, giving over to the deepest of carnal desires.
For Nina, that’s letting go of the pressures she feels from her domineering mother and the perfection she thinks ballerinas must possess and convey every waking second. That freedom allows her to indulge in her sexuality for the first time, her ego, her bravado, her selfishness. A mixture of powerful and ugly traits that fuel her masterful and only performance of Swan Lake.
For Arthur, it’s a ceasing of normality, of trying to fit in, of being someone you’re not. When Joker starts, Arthur doesn’t have the best life. But he has a job, has his mom, has a dream, and a routine that allows him to feel part of society. One by one, he loses those things. He’s fired, he discovers he was adopted then abused, the relationship he thought he had with his female neighbor was a figment of his overly powerful imagination, and his routine crumbles. When those definitions of self vanish, so does Arthur Fleck. What remains is pain, rage, a twisted sense of justice, and a desire to be more than insignificant. The alchemy of those ingredients in the cauldron of Fleck’s trauma and mental illness spawn the clown prince, the Joker.
Another connection: Nina and Arthur each love to dance.
Beyond the characters, Joker and Black Swan play, formally, with the audience’s sense of what’s real, as it’s through the strained psyche of Nina and Arthur that events unfold. Because of this perspective, there are multiple scenes where we’re forced to ask: did that really happen?
And both films are critiques of culture.
Black Swan is a companion to director Darren Aronofsky’s preceding movie, The Wrestler. Through his paired films, Aronofsky investigates why performers sacrifice their mortality for the stage—whether that stage is a wrestling ring, in a theater, or, it’s implied, a field, a classroom, a boardroom, etc.
And Joker, well—let’s get into it.
Up front, it’s important to define the various degrees of zoom that make up the scope of Joker.
- Individual (closest zoom)
- Collective Unconscious (furthest zoom)
To understand the relationship of these zooms, we can look to Frank Ocean’s refrain on the Jay-Z and Kanye West song “No Church In the Wild.”
Human beings in a mob/What’s a mob to a king?/What’s a king to a god?/What’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?
The refrain lays out entities that escalate in grandeur. Almost like a linear list of planets from smallest to largest.
- A mob is made up of individuals who are more powerful together than they are alone.
- Despite the strength of a mob, a king wields more authority, controlling laws and military.
- But a king is, all things considered, still mortal and limited by that mortality. So how can a king possibly compare to a god who is unlimited?
- Even then, in most religions, a god’s inherent celestial nature necessitates influence through religious leaders and ethereal machinations. So if someone is a non-believer, it means they don’t acknowledge the influence of any god on the world, thus reducing the omnipotent to seemingly nothing.
In Joker, a similar “circle of life” exists.
- Individuals make up the public.
- The public is at the mercy of politics.
- Politics are shaped by media.
- The media of a culture is influenced by that culture’s collective unconscious.
- And it just so happens individual actions can have a tremendous impact on the collective unconscious.
In both “No Church in the Wild” and Joker, the smallest entity—a single person—can range from the weakest to the most influential.
During the course of Joker, we have several key narrative arcs. A narrative arc is important to understanding a movie, as the contrast from “how someone/something is in the beginning, compared to the end” is purposeful. That final state of being is the destination the entire story built to.
What do we see when we look at the narrative arcs in Joker?
- Start: Has a mostly normal life, despite sometimes struggling to manage his mental illness.
- End: Mental illness is in full control. Ends up as the symbolic leader of a violent, city-wide revolution that empowers criminal activity.
- Start: The citizens of Gotham are living regular big city life, though there are signs of unrest, like teenagers that steal from Arthur then assault him. Or the Wall Street Bros who harass a woman on a train before physically confronting Arthur.
- End: The public, inspired by a vigilante clown, revolts against the political establishment. The citizens of Gotham descend into a terrifying, indulgent, and harmful chaos.
- Start: Things aren’t great in the city. The movie opens with a news report referencing a garbage strike, and we can see just how much garbage there is. There’s clearly issues with between Gotham’s government and its public. But order and standards still reign.
- End: For a majority of the movie, we’re told by various entities that Thomas Wayne is the only hope for improving Gotham. If he wins the upcoming mayoral election, things will improve. Except the continued deterioration of Gotham’s policies—shutting down mental health groups, increasing unemployment, etc.—feed the fire of the eventual riot. And Thomas Wayne, our hope for a better tomorrow, is gunned down.
- Start: In the first 20 minutes of Joker, the media is informative (garbage strike) and entertaining (the Murray Franklin Show).
- End: The media’s constant fascination with the “clown who killed three rich guys on the subway” provides Arthur with a sense of importance he’s never felt before. Like a moth to the flame, he can’t keep away. The Murray Franklin Show ends up being Joker’s platform that catapults him into a symbol for the maligned and angry.
- Start: The aesthetic of the city is bland and worn down and exhausted. You get the sense of ennui and powerlessness that makes up the psyche of those in Gotham. Everyone’s just trying their best to get by. But is anything getting done?
- End: Gotham burns. But the heat is double-edged. There’s a vitality that’s been missing. There’s a sense of urgency that’s been missing. There’s action where there had only been stagnation. Except the people acting are the broken, the unruly, the morally unrestrained. They’re dressed as clowns, shedding all cultural norms.
What the narrative arcs say
When Joker’s stripped down to its “zooms” and “narrative arcs,” the intention of the movie clarifies. It’s an examination of the recipe that tilts not only an individual but a society from the humane to the inhuman.
A stagnant environment, media that focuses on negative stories, policy that abandons citizenry, and unchecked mental illness—these are your ingredients. These are the conditions that, when they mix together, culminate in a hurricane of unimaginable consequence.
Joker has been met with seemingly equal amounts praise and condemnation, as some herald it as a masterpiece of a character study, while others, like the New York Times’s A.O. Scott proclaim, “It’s hard to say if the muddle ‘Joker’ makes of itself arises from confusion or cowardice, but the result is less a depiction of nihilism than a story about nothing.”
But Scott ignores the meta examination. Why was this version of Joker made now? What possible reason could there be for filmmaker to examine the causes and environment that lead to upset individuals committing and inspiring public acts of violence?
If we, as a culture, understand what ignites this dismal chain reaction, maybe we, as a culture, could do something about it. Which is why Joker, under the direction of Todd Phillips, is—like Black Swan and The Wrestler—an attempted diagnosis.
Cinema, as with most narrative art, is, ultimately, a means of soul searching. Of reflection. Of showing something that’s infinitely difficult to tell…and in so doing, movies can help people understand the indescribable beauty and pain of the human heart. Whether you hate it or love it, Joker is such an undertaking.