I have come late to this film but it seems to my eye more or less as zeitgeisty now as it was on its release in 2019.
Joaquim Phoenix gives a highly committed performance as the unemployed clown and aspiring stand up Arthur Fleck who, having been let down by life, psychiatrically ill, his medical services cut and his housing poorly maintained, becomes violent and then inspires an entire movement of eat-the-rich anarchists.
On a craft level the film is outstanding. 1980s Gotham is grimy and grim, urine yellow and refrigerator-light blue, with a sense of place so believable you can smell the stench of fried onions and uncollected trash.
But it’s the political content of the film that garnered the headlines. And there’s a great deal to unpick. Fleck might be an unhinged, violent iconoclast, but all he’s really asking for in the film is a little socialism: healthcare and regulated housing, universal basic income and a fair redistribution of wealth. And an education system that teaches enough social cohesion and tolerance that men know not to harass lone women on the subway. On paper it doesn’t seem like a bad manifesto at all.
But it’s not so much what is said as the way it’s said. The movie may state its ideas clearly, but they look different when juxtaposed with the fact that all the anarchists are men.
What does this film think of women? Not much. It’s a man’s world here. White men at that, I think. As soon as you notice that none of the rioters or dissenters is a woman, the film stops looking like a violent cry for collectivism and instead reads as a story about angry incels flipping police cars over. It feels like someone important read the script as far as act three before they remembered that Joker is supposed to be a baddie, so they quickly put all the socialism in parentheses and demanded a few more scenes of men being dicks.
As it stands, by the end of the film, following a scene that heavily implies (SPOILER) a black female psychiatrist being murdered off screen by Fleck before he does a little dance, the whole movie feels less to me like ‘eat the rich’ and more like ‘that poor, much maligned Jordan Peterson actually talks a lot of sense, it’s such a shame a few of his followers take things too far.’ As the credits rolled I couldn’t figure out if the film is about anarchists or 4Chan. What does that say about attitudes to collectivism?