It’s rare for a film to achieve full memetic status when it’s first released. It usually takes quite a while, sometimes years, for many different layers of expression and commentary to reveal themselves within a truly memetic movie.
Not so with Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of rage, despair and insanity is both uncomfortable to endure and yet completely enthralling. Watching Arthur Fleck choke on the uncontrollable, maniacal laughter he tries to suppress is mesmerising as we witness two personalities battling for supremacy inside the same tortured mind. Trapped in a hopeless cycle of stupefying medication, vapid counselling and grinding despair, it’s only a matter of time before Arthur finally snaps and the monster within can no longer be contained. Indeed, it is Fleck’s acceptance of the Joker as his true identity which is one of the deepest and most disturbing aspects of the entire screenplay. Arthur Fleck has known nothing but unhappiness, exploitation and alienation; while the Joker is a carefree, brutal and remorseless predator.
Joker is both created by and reflected in the oily, grimy and hopeless city that Fleck and the other residents of Gotham are forced to endure day in and day out as each cycle of decay, promised renewal and abandonment is worse than the last. Arthur Fleck is ground under by the grey, garbage filled vista he cannot escape, while the Joker is perfectly adapted to his environment; finding joy in every grimy puddle and wreaking his vengeance on a world that first conceived and then shunned him. The psychotically violent clown is familiar to us all as Frankenstein’s vengeful creation, re-imagined for our modern world of medicated conformity and vicious social stratification.
Joker will be one of the most discussed and analysed movies of all time so there’s no need to engage in a detailed breakdown here; although two high points really stayed with me once the credits had rolled. The first was Arthur Fleck infiltrating a salmon-scoffing benefit screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, while the second was the Joker admiring the works he hast wrought as he’s driven through the burning city in the back of a squad car. With his final, cathartic act of violence broadcast live on TV, Arthur Fleck is gone and the Joker finds a strange kind of peace as he fully embraces his own insanity. At last he is at ease with himself and the destructive spasm he has brought about as Gotham’s long suffering citizens vent their rage on the symbols of the city’s barbaric cultural and economic elite. At last the Joker has become so much more than a man in a mask; he is a living, breathing vessel into which a beleaguered population can pour their anger and existential rage. Maybe Gotham and the Joker actually need each other in order to survive.
The archetypal power of this movie is very real and the hype is, for once, thoroughly deserved. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have created something truly extraordinary by holding up a mirror to a sneering political and media establishment that openly despises the people it purports to serve, yet demands their unquestioning adoration at the same time.
Perhaps the biggest joke of all is Joker’s immediate recognition as a memetic movie. This deep and instant connection with audiences shows just how much the real world has changed within the space of a few short years. Movie-goers from all walks of life are picking up on the Joker’s larger meta-narratives before the credits are even rolling. This audience engagement demonstrates a dramatic uptick in the average population’s engagement with ideas that are usually confined to the political and sociological spheres.
No wonder the media establishment hates this brilliant movie; they see how it exposes them for the shallow thugs they always have been. They can see it, and we can see it too.