Sunday, October 20, 2019

"Joker" reviewed

Joker is a very good movie and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is perhaps the finest of his career. Given his CV, that’s saying a lot. The movie made $96 million in its first weekend, breaking the record for movies opening during the month of October. It has an 89 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I find all the fanfare and acclaim encouraging because Joker is not a Star Wars or a comic book movie, even if it does indeed feature an iconic comic book character. (It’s more Taxi Driver than Venom.) It’s serious, it’s got a whiff of indie in it, and the subject matter is timely. It would be great if our blockbusters were more On Golden Pond than Logan, but if we must tell the origin story of a comic book character to get people to watch stories of social significance, then, well, so be it.

It’s amazing that one of the biggest box office hits of the year is actually a sad movie that places your feet in the shoes of the most disadvantaged. You feel the Joker’s loneliness, his rage, his pain. It’s been suggested that the inspiration behind the Joker’s character is a group of men known as “incels.” “Incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” commiserate with one another in the dark corners of the Internet and often digitally terrorize women. Self-avowed incels have committed at least four recent mass shootings, including Californian incel Elliot Rodger in 2014. I’m not sure if the filmmakers consciously decided to tell an “incel” story, but I think the suggestion is more than appropriate, given that the Joker is a lonely and disturbed man who violently responds to the frustrations and injustices that make up his daily existence.

This movie doesn’t glamorize violence, though it does have something to say about why some violence happens. And critics (I think wrongly) have scorned the movie because it humanizes a common and unquestioned villain—the disaffected white man. Some critics refuse to watch it, and goad others not to watch it, perhaps because swapping fury with pity and reexamining long-held beliefs and reshaping long-drawn identities are unpleasant contortions for one’s psyche to endure. In a viral tweet that got 55K likes and 16K retweets, Rachel Miller writes, 

I don't want to watch a movie that shows us the trauma that drove the Joker insane. I don't want to watch a well-intentioned but unstable man get bullied until he turns into a mass murderer. I don't want to watch a man get rejected by women as an excuse for his future of domestic abuse. I don't want to be shown what a poor, unfortunate underdog this man was who was sadly forced by circumstances… to take up a life of crime. I don't want to have sympathy for a man best known for his robbery, murder and arguable rape shoved down my throat for two hours. I don't want this to be sold as a relatable story that can happen to anyone with a bad enough day, and I don't want to be around any of the lonely white boys who relate to it… I don't know if there ever is a good time for a movie that paints mass murder as the logical conclusion of a socially isolated debatably neurodivergent white man being failed by the system, but I feel as though this is not fucking it.

CNN writer Jeff Yang says Joker is an “insidious validation of the white-male resentment.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, doing his best to find racial themes where there aren’t any, says “Joker is an intensely racialized movie” suffering from “obliviousness.” More Twitter: David Lo Pun-ch Nazis warns that Joker looks like “a sympathetic tale of a ‘wronged by society’ white dude and their entitlement to violence.” Hilary gro writes “is it really the best thing to keep making movies that portray disaffected white men doing violence as sympathetic?” (Credit to Alex Abad-Santos at Vox for the Twitter research.)

It’s as if these critics and tweeters are saying, “I don’t want to watch something that may get me to think about a group of people in a more compassionate and nuanced way.” Perhaps I’m being a little unfair: to give them the benefit of the doubt, the critics may simply be saying that the trajectory to violence in Joker is not in accord with up-to-date psychological research and the movie is therefore unenlightening, even counterproductive. If that’s the case, fair enough. But I disagree. The other thing about these tweets that amazes me is how incels (or “lonely white boy[s]” “white dude[s],” or “disaffected white men”) are almost universally mocked and ridiculed, and their misfortunes dismissed. I don’t want to sound alt-right or a member of men’s-rights group, but I want to push back against the trend of using the term “white man” as a pejorative. The term, slowly approaching the synonymity of “Nazi,” is bandied about by normally-thoughtful people with a carefreeness and nonchalance that is as troubling as it is unexamined. (I’ve had several conversations with people who, with startling casualness, condemned the “straight, white, male” identity to someone who is, well, a straight, white male.) Has it not occurred to these folks that one can be both a white, straight, man AND downtrodden? That we’re not all sexist ass-grabbing bosses or racist planet-ending CEOs? That we’re not all doing well?

Joker gives us a face to all the men (and women, too, but allow me to continue focusing on men) who are struggling. Cultural expectations of masculinity demand that men share less with one another. Men have fewer friends, and they experience more emotional isolation (which, research shows, is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking). In the U.K., 18 percent of men say that they don’t have a close friend and 35 percent report feeling lonely at least once a week. Twice as many men die of drug overdoses than women. Between 1999 and 2010 in the U.S., the rate of suicide among men in their fifties rose by 50 percent, which some analysts say has as much to do with isolation as economic anxieties. (This isn’t to say that other demographic groups have it easier, but allow me to continue to exclusively speak for a demographic that we dare not speak of with pity or compassion.) Perhaps next time we mock or ridicule incels or non-thriving white men, we should at least take a moment to reflect on how our society also leaves many of them behind, how our culture sometimes deprives them of essential human nutrients, and how the absence of these things can drive a person mad. After a school shooting, it feels good and reassuring to hurriedly channel our grief into an easy and accessible emotion — righteous anger — rather than doing the work to scrutinize our atomized, competitive, and lonesome society for manufacturing so much despair. Instead, we call them cowards, and losers, and hateful, and move on.

I have been blessed with a functioning-enough brain and okay-enough looks to have done okay in the dating department, but I’ve tasted enough loneliness and social invisibility to be able to comprehend, and thus sympathize with, men who are more substantially deprived. Most of us, though, would rather joke about how such a person can’t get a date, how they just need to hit the gym, or how, as white men, they have outsized notions of privilege. We’re trained to think, “Too bad! Buck Up. Your kind has had its advantages for long enough” (which is an unfair abstraction to impose on an individual who may not have, thus far, ever experienced any of these advantages). It’s as if we believe that a shoulder to cry on, a hug, and sexual attention are luxuries to be fought over in the marketplace of intimacy, not vital human needs to be generously dispersed in the human community. “Joker,” in this way, is doing something that ought not need doing: It provides a compelling portrait of an oppressed person who our society doesn’t want to see and who our society definitely doesn’t want to call oppressed.

I’m guessing that, regardless of our demographic (though maybe not so much the seriously-well-off), we’ve all felt oppressed by an unfair world. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has turned against you. Movies like I, Daniel Blake or Falling Down capture this. We’ve all been there. A small medical procedure ends up costing you thousands. Your landlord doubles your rent. You’re trying to sort out a bill over the phone and the call drops after having been on hold for half an hour. Your car is making a funny noise. You’re paying too much for your phone bill. The cable company increases its rates yet again. You live with a daily onslaught of unforeseen and outrageous bills, taxes, and fees. The U.K., where I live now, has it’s share of problems, but at least here in Scotland we have free health care, a year’s worth of mostly-paid maternity leave, free undergraduate education, and the right to roam. Sometimes I think what passes for normal in the U.S. is borderline inhumane, and enough to drive us all mad. I still have one foot in North America, though. Just last week, I transferred a large sum of money from my U.S. bank to my U.K. bank, and my U.S. bank (Citizens Bank) unknowingly gave me an unfairly low currency exchange rate, stealing $1,000 from me. Later on, I called to inquire about the rate and they said I should have asked for a higher exchange rate. How the fuck am I supposed to know that I can haggle about a currency rate? Shouldn’t my bank try to help me? How can something so unjust exist? Has the world gone fucking crazy? It’s moments like these (and I feel comfortable saying this because I assume we’ve all felt this way) when we just want to blow the whole world up. We want to give expression to our rage. We want to punish the unfairness of the system. We want to push over a shelf in a supermarket, heave a brick through a bank’s glass wall, or just violently explode. It’s always just a passing thought, to be drowned beneath a beer, drained into the sewers of our psyche, or maybe, hopefully, cancelled out and forgotten by the good deed of someone else. But we get these thoughts when our rage reaches a rolling boil, and it’s then when I think I can begin to understand why those with fewer psychological resources commit atrocities. It’s partly because atrocities have been committed on them.

And (spoilers here) this brings me to my sole criticism of Joker. Society indiscriminately tortured the Joker, but the writers didn’t have the courage to let the Joker indiscriminately get his revenge on society. When the Joker kills the show host, played by Robert De Niro, he’s surgically seeking revenge, expressing his rage by discarding just a few bad apples. What really needs to happen, for complete catharsis (for both the audience and the Joker) is for him to take aim at the audience, who represents the greater society. We need the Joker to be more like Carrie, who, in a fit of rage in the 1976 movie, burns alive her allies as well as her enemies. In that movie, it feels weirdly right and good and true because we’ve all been in that mental space before. And such a scene serves an important warning to us all: treat one of us without dignity and we may all pay. In its final act, Joker, though a mostly-bold and ultimately good movie about how indignities lead to violence, pulled a punch.