Why So Downcast, O, My Arthur Fleck?

When the first trailer for the Joker was released online, it seemed as though a […]

Bryant Trinh / 10.25.19

When the first trailer for the Joker was released online, it seemed as though a swath of the nation was experiencing a mass hysteria for what was to be shown in theaters. I was among one of those who were eager and fascinated to see the character study that writer and director Todd Phillips had created for his version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Phillips is known mostly for producing The Hangover (Parts One, Two, & Three) and Starsky & Hutch. Comedy, then, seemed to be his strength, which many assumed would lend quite the advantage to his Joker film.

Joker follows Arthur Fleck who aspires to be, and ultimately fails at becoming a stand-up comedian. In the trailers, we find Arthur living at home as his mother’s care-taker, and we also follow his struggle as a clown-for-hire. On top of appearing socially inept, the two-minute clip indicates that Arthur Fleck suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at the wrong times. The trailer ends with his transformation into the Joker.

A handful of news outlets reported concern over the following that the Joker had gathered in the months leading up to the film’s opening night. Law enforcement were said to be on alert for potential Joker-inspired shootings, as the clown prince is known for rousing up chaos and anarchy. Frightening would be understating my feelings towards the film. I questioned multiple times whether waiting for the digital release made more sense than sitting in fear of another shooting.

By the time opening week came around, those fears had simmered to a low boil. In recent years, I have taken on going to and watching films by myself. Perhaps insane in my own right, I went to see Stephen King’s IT: Chapter One, Pet Sematary, and more recently, IT: Chapter Two. Only in hindsight was I thankful that I did not go see Joker all by myself but with a couple friends.

There was never a moment during the film in which I remember laughing or cracking a smile. Joker turned out to be one the more unsettling and disturbing films that I have seen. The only other film I wish to never have to watch again would be Requiem for a Dream. This is not to say that Todd Phillips failed in some way. In fact, he created a cinematically captivating and beautifully scored film. You could not deny the mastery in this work. Many might say that Joker carried out its intended effects; enjoyment certainly was far from what Phillips wanted to evoke out of his audience.

I remember coming back to work telling some of my friends that Joker would not be a film they would want to see. I remember describing to a friend that watching Joker was not far off from hearing someone tell a joke that just will not land—no one is laughing but the joker.

When we watch other films, we hope and want there to be some sort of positive turning point. J.R.R. Tolkien helps us here when he came up with the term “eucatastrophe.” Tolkien writes, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).” We saw this in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when the ring was destroyed. There was relief and release. There was a rescue and a return.

As Joker closes, we find not an ounce of any eucatastrophic event. Not one redemptive moment comes to pass. Throughout the film, you feel like a candle whose flame is slowly being snuffed out—slowly suffocating until it is completely dark. No applause. Just an awkward obligation to leave the theater quickly and quietly without an opportunity to process anything. How do you step back into broad daylight, with the warm sun seemingly trying to wake up a cold body, after watching a movie like that? How do you drive back home or to work? What hope are we supposed to feel after watching Joker? Perhaps the answer really was: none.

I struggled hard to process how I felt about what Todd Phillips created. I wanted there to be redemption in the movie, in Arthur Fleck, and in his character arc. In 2016, Hollywood graced us with Manchester by the Sea which was morbid and heavy, yet it left us with hope—even if just a glimmer of hope. A year after that, Lady Bird made us cry with a coming of age story, the ending of which warmed every viewer’s heart. I desired the same for Joker, but it was absent. Grace in its absence.

As I think more about it, though, perhaps there is something hopeful that can be said about Joker. Grace and hope for redemption usually are things we humans experience as coming from outside of us. Why should it be any different for Arthur Fleck? Every film ends, but the narrative continues. And while the film ends with chaos, violence, and destruction, grace usually is found peaking its head right around the corner. Just because we do not see the silver lining in the clouds does not indicate the sun isn’t there, out of sight.

In another review of the film, Brett McCracken writes that Joker “holds up a mirror to our cultural moment.” As we watch Joker, we are also looking into mirrors that tell us a lot about our own selves. Arthur Fleck begins the movie struggling up a staircase and ends with him dancing back down the same set of stairs as if to indicate the full embrace of his downward spiral. In those moments, we see how fragile we truly are and how capable we are of following suit. The only thing we believe is capable of producing a change was left out of the film, but that hardly means that it does not exist.

In her tour de force memoir, The Recovering, Leslie Jamison writes about her addiction and recovery: “Whatever it was, I needed to believe in something stronger than my willpower… The Higher Power that turned my sobriety into more than deprivation was simply not me. That was all I knew.”

It may be that we can add to what Jamison says: whatever it was, we (alongside the film and Arthur Fleck) need something that is not only stronger but also outside of us. Outside of our ability to fix things and make things new again. The film may have ended without a glimmer of hope, but we would do well to remember that hope is most often found on the outside anyways. Most of us will never suffer through what Arthur Fleck’s character did in the film, but when we do find ourselves at our darkest, the light that absolves and transforms us never comes from within us.

As John Zahl puts it, “God’s office is at the end of your rope.”