Joker is a fine little movie if an ultimately unsatisfying one. It is an experiment of a sort, making a comic-book origin-story film in the style of the self-consciously heavy neo-noir American films of the 1970s — the Expanded Scorsese Cinematic Universe, basically. But Murray Franklin, the Carsonesque late-show host played by Robert De Niro, identifies the film’s great flaw in a moment of within-the-movie meta-criticism: Arthur Fleck’s story suffers from an excess of pity.
The problem is not Fleck’s self-pity, which is an inevitable and necessary current of the drama at hand. The problem is the pity of the film’s writers and directors, who have given us an entirely conventional and artistically timid account of evil carefully fitted to early 21st-century sensibilities: Fleck is a gentle soul who suffers from a mental illness that might be manageable if not for the cruelty and indifference of the world around him — the inept city government that cuts funds for his mental-health program, his damaged and ineffectual mother, the domineering Trump-style millionaire-politician who may be his father, the plain meanness at the heart of late-night television comedy, and, in a sop to the Reddit boys, the hostility of young women who decline to see the good heart within the man who is terrorizing and stalking them. Joker’s account of evil is mechanistic and transactional, summed up in his killing joke: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you deserve.”
The problem of evil has bedeviled Christian thinkers from the beginning. Men of faith and men struggling to keep their faith alike have found themselves paralyzed by the question: “How could it be that God, being both good and omnipotent, allows evil in the world?” Often this is asked in relation to some private tragedy: “Mr. Smith was a good man — why did he get cancer?” Denis Leary was covering the same moral territory in his standup act back in the Nineties: “John Lennon takes six bullets in the chest. Yoko Ono is standing right next to him, not one bullet! Explain that to me, God!” This is the adolescent form of moral theology, based on the presumption that God owes us an explanation, that we are entitled to have Him justify Himself to us. The existence of evil requires no more divine justification than the existence of anything else, but we keep trying, because we would rather believe almost anything, no matter how absurd — consider the intellectual careers of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, or Michel Foucault — rather than face the terrifying facts of the case.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a little Satan. He is wearing the “moral dignity pants” that Hannibal Lecter once warned against before author Thomas Harris embraced the mechanistic tick-tock morality of our time. The charismatic cannibal describes the situation with perfect clarity to FBI agent Clarice Starling, the obedient personification of rule-following: “Nothing happened to me . . . I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism . . . . You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants — nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me . . . . Can you stand to say I’m evil?” With the triumph of therapeutic culture, nothing ever is anybody’s fault, and nobody has to be understood as evil. Indeed, such an understanding would, given therapeutic assumptions, prove incoherent. Phoenix has played around with the dramatic possibilities of mental illness in the past, staging an Andy Kaufmann–style hoax in the form of a public mental breakdown in service of the film I’m Still Here. But the mental-illness moral get-out-of-jail-free card works against drama rather than in its service. If there’s nothing at stake that a couple of bureaucratic tweaks couldn’t mitigate, then why invest all that time in the story? If it is the case, as the film suggests, that Arthur Fleck’s troubles all go back to a childhood bonk on the head, then the story may be sad, but it is not interesting. I suppose, the times being what they are, I should note that I write that as somebody who knows a great deal more about childhood concussions that he would prefer to.
The prisons and mental wards are full of people with stories that might rightly inspire pity in us. They also are full of a great many people who inspire no pity whatsoever in anybody with a functional moral sense. Some people are abused and grow up to be saints. Some people are abused and grow up to be monsters. Some people have happy childhoods and grow up to be saints. Some people have happy childhoods and grow up to be monsters. Suffering is a variable in the human equation, but isolating the variable in this case leads us astray. The richer and more terrifying problem upon which to meditate is the fact that the world is full of Arthur Flecks whose evil is not the result of psychological conditioning but is — or at least seems to be — ex nihilo.
We as a culture do seem ready to stay stuck in our resentful adolescence. We seem to be very angry at our mothers — Joker’s Arthur Fleck is a variation on the theme of Norman Bates — even as we remain unable to confront our fathers: When Fleck tries, he is reduced to sarcastically asking for a hug and gets a punch in the nose instead. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden dismisses his mother — he diagnoses his peers’ problem as being “a generation of men raised by women” — and fantasizes about fist-fighting his father. Mothers have had it pretty rough in pop culture for the past 40 years. Not that they don’t deserve it.
A more engaged and active mode of rebellion against the father figure characterized some earlier heroes of art and literature, prominent among them Satan. (Two literary approaches to Satan, Milton’s and Dante’s, conclude my book The Smallest Minority.) The Bible itself gives us a very accusing and seemingly contradictory account of the Adversary, and the Romantic tradition has given us a Satan that is more easily incorporated into our adolescent school of contemporary morality. But the problem of evil is really no “problem” at all, of no more consequence than Scholastic inquiries about the legions of angels dancing on the head of a pin. It is utterly obvious, and utterly mysterious. The Christian inquirer faces a problem rather like that of the scholar of evolution: There is no point of observation outside of the phenomenon under study from which to look in while standing apart. The ultimate facts of the case are right at our fingertips and unknowable. The greater and more interesting personifications of evil found in superior works of literature are grounded in that mystery, which we, for some reason, have forgotten how to contemplate. It is time to Make Satan Great Again.
This is, in the context of the film, a dramatic question rather than an urgently moral one. The purpose of cinema is not to provide us with moral instruction or social propaganda. If anything, the problem with Joker is that it is too milky, too accommodating, and neither cruel nor shocking enough. As a question of drama, the moral lifelessness of Joker is a defect that cannot be made up for with writing, acting, or music, excellent as those all are in the film. The story of Joker is just something that happens to Fleck, morally and cinematically no different from being struck by a car, as he is at one point. The moral stakes of the story are what connect us to Arthur Fleck, who is not as alone as he supposes or as the filmmakers suppose. To the extent that the connection is attenuated, the protagonist undergoes a severance from the audience that is much more radical and complete than the character’s severance from the uncaring and unnoticing Gotham around him.
This is not a question of empathy, religion, or social do-goodery, but one of competent story-telling, which requires a foundation firmer and sturdier than mere tenderheartedness and social psychology are able to provide.