In Which I Too Insist on Weighing in on the Joker Movie

Because it has been the beneficiary of the most potent organic Streisand-effect-style marketing campaign in a generation, I went to see Joker with what I believed to be a firm sense of what the movie would be like. It would be a pean to empty nihilism, as the New Yorker told me, or a gratuitous mess, not nearly “as edgy as it thinks it is” (to quote Vox); it would be a rallying cry for incels, with a sexless, entitled, and resentful protagonist, and the probable cause of a mass shooting—presumably because the Joker, at some point, would commit one. His henchmen or supporters or sympathetics would be either proto-SS foot soldiers, or antifa proxies (depending on the politics of the scandalized reviewer), and in glorifying White Male Entitlement, it would feature a variety of women and People of Color who served primarily as obstacles, robbing our White Male hero, for a while, until his glorious revenge, of his beatific right to inherit the earth. Or: I didn’t really believe it would be like any of those things, but I was curious to see what kind of movie had transformed so many good millennial liberals—survivors of the long dark days of the Bush administration—into precisely the kind of pearl-clutching Tipper Gore-type culture warriors who had persuaded their parents not to let these content miners buy Marilyn Manson albums or own trench coats when they were young. Mainly, I expected it to be a super hero movie, which is to say, I expected it to be fine for an $8 ticket, but basically dull. The plot, I expected, wouldn’t really be an Iliad for Incel Entitlement, but it wouldn’t be much of anything else either.

Aside from roughly twenty minutes devoted to Batman mythos (including the full final fifteen minutes, which exist solely to remind us that we are watching a Comic Book Villain Origin Film), the actual plot of Joker is as follows: In early 1980s New York City, at the tail-end of a two-decade process called deinstitutionalization, a schizophrenic man (with a variety of other, more eccentric secondary disorders),  is released from a psychiatric hospital and goes to live with his ailing mother. His mother is also ill, and appears to have abused the man as a child (genetics and early childhood trauma both being common contributors to schizophrenia), but the two get along well enough. The man has a social worker, and access to a variety of psych meds. He has dreams of becoming a standup comic, which are clearly going nowhere, but he manages to hold down a crappy, low-wage and low-security job as a party clown, which at least pays the rent at his dilapidated apartment building. The man doesn’t have many friends. He’s awkward and unnerving—while his medication and therapy keeps him stable, he’s still off in some difficult-to-describe way, and struggles with ordinary social interactions. People on the street peg him as a sickly creep: he’s hassled and yelled at and beat up and robbed with the numbing regularity common to the poor and sick. Even his coworkers, who are professional clowns, think he’s kind of a freak, and for good reason: this man is a sick, struggling weirdo who says and does all of the uncomfortable and vaguely creepy things that unwell weirdos do. He doesn’t seem dangerous, but the people around him react the way people always react to people like him: by keeping their distance, because I don’t know, man, there’s something wrong with that guy. He’s weird. He makes me nervous. 

Unfortunately for the man, 80s austerity is coming. The city is in the midst of a garbage strike. The subways are filthy. Crime is up. The city makes deep budget cuts, and the man loses his case worker. He no longer gets therapy; worse, he can no longer get his medication. Over the course of a few weeks, or months, the man destabilizes. He becomes more awkward, more inappropriate, more “grossly disorganized”, as a doctor might say. He sleeps less, and stops sleeping. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic. He begins acting out and ultimately loses his job. Soon after, his delusions come back. He experiences increasingly consuming bouts of hallucinatory psychosis. He oscillates between mania and catatonia, and begins exhibiting strong suicidal ideation. Ultimately, he turns violent. His violence escalates, he destabilizes further, his delusions of persecution and grandeur become more aggressive and pronounced, and ultimately, after a brief crime spree, he is arrested and remanded to a forensic psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. This may be a super hero movie—some of the particulars, particularly near the end, are outlandish—but apart from the man in question becoming an iconic foil to a masked vigilante, it is also a true story, one which has played out thousands of times, perhaps tens of thousands of times, in this country over the past fifty years.

Before the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Americans were permanently and involuntarily housed in psychiatric hospitals. At first, warehousing the mentally ill in this way was largely a practical matter: almost none of the mood stabilizers and antipsychotics used to stabilize patients today had been invented yet, and effective therapeutic methods were still in their infancy. A manic-depressive or schizophrenic who could not function in society, and who posed a demonstrable danger to themselves or others, could only be quarantined and looked after until their natural death. In the best cases this constituted a kind of paternalistic benevolence — a way to help those who could not help themselves access food and shelter — but in many cases, hospitals were more invested in subduing patients than they were in treating them. The ill were kept in a kind of zombie-state with early, over-powerful drugs. Electroshock was common. In many hospitals, involuntary lobotomies were performed at the first sign of difficulty—cutting out part of the brain tended, at the very least least, to make the patients compliant, docile, and quiet. Abuse, both of patients by doctors, and between patients themselves, was extraordinarily frequent, as were attacks on staff by residents. Funding was scarce. Many hospitals had not been refurbished, or properly staffed, in years.

Then, in the second half of the 20th century, the advent of more effective medication combined with increasing public awareness of the conditions in many psychiatric hospitals (I’m meant to remind you of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here), gave rise to a political and legal reform movement known to us now as deinstitutionalization. Beginning in California, and then spreading to the rest of the country, these reformers tended to be an alliance of three distinct groups: well-intentioned liberals horrified by the mistreatment mentally ill patients, civil libertarians fighting for a citizen’s god given right to live free while insane, and movement conservatives, led by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, who talked about private charity, and fiscal responsibility, but who at bottom believed that psychiatric was Jewish horse shit, the cost of which would be better spent on tax cuts. After a successful campaign, this alliance managed to pass laws like California’s Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which released nearly all permanent residents from public psychiatric hospitals, and severely curtailed the state’s power to involuntarily commit patients going forward. Almost everywhere, the institutions were meant to be replaced with robust networks of community-based outpatient support, but in many places these networks never materialized. When they did, they were often understaffed and underfunded. While the wisdom of deinstitutionalization can still be debated—medication did allow many previously hopeless patients to return to ordinary life; the conditions in many hospitals really were horrific—what cannot be denied was the consequence for the poorest and sickest Americans who were released, or who have come of age since the 60s: hundreds of thousands became homeless. Many wound up in jail. Many of those who avoided either fate nonetheless struggled to survive—often living in the worst housing, inconsistently employed by the worst jobs, and infrequently, if ever, able to access and afford doctors or medications. In the 1980s, when Governor Reagan became President Reagan (and was shot, ironically, by a schizophrenic man whose debilitating illness was nonetheless deemed not ‘imminently dangerous’ enough to warrant involuntary commitment prior to his assassination attempt), further cuts to social services deepened the crisis. More insane people went to prison. More of them wound up on the streets. Many of those who had managed to hang on for a long time with the skeletal support of the welfare state—like Arthur Fleck, in Joker—were lost to one fate or the other or both. Today, in Los Angeles, where I grew up, the homeless population is higher than it has ever been. Fully 25% of the homeless are believed to be suffering from a severe psychiatric illness, which is more than ten times the rate of the general population. Los Angeles County Jail is, in terms of the sheer number of acknowledged patients, the de facto largest psychiatric hospital in the United States.

I’m obliged to tell you, of course, that most of the severely mentally ill who were lost in the wake of deinstitutionalization did not escalate to homicide, although despite common anti-stigma cliches, the unmedicated insane do commit violent crimes at a higher rate than even the impoverished sane. But beyond the particulars of Fleck’s murders—they do, after all, need to adhere to a satisfying plot, and remain in line with the Batman mythology—his criminal escalation in Joker is not particularly outlandish. His victims—some strangers, some friends, a family member, and a famous person about whom Fleck fantasizes he has an inevitable and fated bond—are fairly common to murders resulting from schizophrenia. I have spent the past year working on a longer profile of a real man who has served over forty years in prison for a series of murders he committed in the 1970s as a result of paranoid psychosis, and frankly, his spree—lasting several months and totaling 13 victims overall—is more extreme an outlier than what we see in Joker. We tend to talk about the relationship between mental illness and mass shootings, which is a tenuous relationship at best. Far more common are impulsive stalkings and assaults and batteries and yes, murders, carried out by the insane, often with their own desperate caretakers as the victims. There are literally thousands of cases which played out more or less like all but the final few minutes of Joker. Many of them are terrifying and heartbreaking and sad, and it is certain that whatever the humanitarian travesties carried out by the particular, poorly-funded and abusive hospitals of the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these crimes would not have occurred if we had not thrown open the doors of the asylums. They would not have occurred had we committed to community mental health centers, and a robust welfare state, and case workers with reasonable loads, and doctors with reasonable hours, and free medication for those who very clearly need it. Joker is a superhero movie, but it is also a history of deinstitutionalization, in one extreme but not implausible case.

I’ve spent the last day thinking about why the Joker that actually appears on screens is so different from the Joker we’ve all read about, the incel-pandering ode to white male entitlement which will no doubt inspire a mass shooting, and which has actually inspired actual police to set up security at screenings of the film, and theaters—even including the dinky little mall cinema where I saw it in Iowa—to ban costumes and require ID to buy a ticket. I suppose I have three theories.

The first is the most obvious: many many thousands of words, in posts, and articles, and tweets, were written before the release of Joker by culture-industry writers who had not actually seen the movie because the movie had not come out yet. They saw a trailer, which had all the tedious indicators of a self-serious twisted comic book violence movie and guessed what it would be about. That’s how you get fear of a movie which “glorifies mass shooters” and “empathizes with incels”, despite the fact that at no point does Joker commit a mass shooting, nor say anything which would indicate that he’s an “incel”, or whatever kind of proto-incel might have existed in 1981. The Joker of Joker is a sad, poor, mentally unstable loser, but the only part of the film which touches on any of the culture war vernacular with which the movie was pre-interpreted is a scene where Robert DeNiro tells the Joker that “you’re crazy” isn’t an excuse for his behavior, and that his excuses in general are so “full of self-pity” that he seems to think he’s “the real victim”, even though he isn’t, a speech which ought to please concerned culture writers, given that it’s more or less the tweet they copy and paste every other month whenever we’re tempted to pity anybody who has done anything wrong then fumbled through an apology. But beyond that, Joker is not about 21st century culture wars.

Second, the experience of deinstitutionalization and its consequences is completely foreign to the kinds of people who write cultural criticism for liberal websites. Most of them are simply unaware that this process occurred, and because Joker does not give a history, they are simply unable to recognize the very real historical trend the movie situates itself inside of. Even the “mentally ill” who have weighed in on the movie—mostly to remind everybody that they have Anxiety and Depression and they’ve never killed anybody, so this is really just more excuses for entitlement, more stigma—are the upscale insane, who have largely never suffered from a “severe” illness, and who, when they have, have always had access to the doctors and therapists available to the bourgeois. They see the scenes in which Fleck clashes with his social worker, and see a moral drama between an “entitled” white man and a black woman (portrayed, in typical racist fashion, as “pushy”) because they have never gotten therapy from a over-worked, exhausted social worker, and have never been the kind of patient who is ill enough to be impolite and difficult, even to their caretakers. Frankly, many of them have never actually received therapy, where the therapist confronts the patient, and requires them to complete certain exercises, and is very much the one In Charge of the proceedings, because what they actually pay $100 a week for is counseling, which is to say, a kind ear and validation from a professional who mainly smiles, and nods, and collects their check. There’s nothing wrong with counseling. It’s what most moderately-disordered millennial strivers need. But it isn’t therapy, much less the kind of therapy you get when you’re receiving free care through a disintegrating public health sector which can, at any moment, vanish and leave you out in the lurch. I’ve talked endlessly in this journal about the respectability politics of mental illness, and the ways in which a talented tenth of relatively stable and unproblematic patients tend to ‘speak’ for the whole mentally ill community. Because Joker is not about their experience—and therefore, not about the experience which their sane colleagues have been led to believe is typical—they cannot interpret or acknowledge it as about mental illness, except in a “problematic” way. Fleck’s behavior therefore must be attributed to his being a White Man, one who, despite growing up in poverty to a single, abusive, unwell mother, and despite spending time in an institution, and time dependent on public largesse, is only rude and difficult because he was slipped a secret manual at birth, informing him that in virtue of his race and gender, he was was entitled to the world. 

Finally, and relatedly, I think the reception (and really pre-reception) to Joker has been motivated by the increasing requirement that American art be didactic. We expect our cultural products—from our lyric essay collections to our Marvel movies—to provide moral instruction, and those products are assessed largely by the extent to which they can be mined for morally pleasing content. For the liberal set which dominates mainstream cultural criticism, the moral content in question is frequently representational: films which portray marginalized people kicking ass are fierce; those which don’t are at best predictable, and at worst enforcing old and dangerous tropes. I don’t mean to be too down on this form of criticism — it’s a definite school and has definite corrective value, as far as that goes — but it isn’t without its foibles (consider, for example, the widely expressed view that Joker fails in comparison to the acclaimed Black Panther, a superhero movie which is frequently characterized as progressive in virtue of its black cast, despite the fact that it is actually about an isolated nation electing its next hereditary autocrat by way of single combat between competing members of the imperial family, whose subsequent coups and counter-coups are only resolved by the literal intervention of the CIA), and at the very least, it is not the only school of thought which we ought to entertain when assessing our entertainments. But worse than any particular application of any particular school of moral thought to art criticism is the way in which the dominance of didactic assessment has come to dominate the expectations of so many viewers. Even those who don’t subscribe to the woke model of art criticism, nonetheless assume, more and more, that movies have some kind of coherent politics to them, and that the game is to work out what those politics are, and then decide whether those politics are good or bad. You can see this even in non-woke, non-liberal readings of Joker. A contingent of right-wingers have argued that, no, actually, the discontent and rioting portrayed in the film is clearly a glorification of “antifa”, not icels, and therefore ought to be condemned on those grounds. Meanwhile, largely sympathetic left-wing audiences have argued that the film is in fact about class antagonism (and that critics focused on the whiteness and maleness of Joker are doing so to deliberately obfuscate the class politics at play), and while I suppose I am more sympathetic to this school of thought than the others, it still feels like an insistence on the idea that the mentally ill Arthur Fleck must “represent” something and that we are meant to figure out whether we are on “his side” (and therefore the movie’s “side”) or not. 

But is that really true? Phoenix’s Joker is an unstable, mentally ill man whose delusions lead him into felonious violence. Do we need to think he’s “good, actually” or “bad, actually” to watch that? Presumably most people would prefer we not live in a culture where the profoundly ill wind up murdering people—or a culture where anybody murders anybody for any reason—but you don’t need an entire film to advance the proposition that killing is regrettable and bad. You don’t need the killer in the movie’s motives to make particular sense, or reflect any particular ideology, because in general, mentally unstable people do not possess a coherent ideology. Late in the movie, Joker goes on an extended, cringey rant about being downtrodden, and how the rich are awful, and how all the people who pissed on him are going to “get what they deserve”, and I suppose you can read incel-style resentment into that, or righteous class-antagonism, and interpret its moral valence accordingly, but you can also see it for what it is: a deranged, aggressive, semi-lucid tirade assembled from awkward, unsophisticated cliches by a very ill man who has cobbled together some kind of theory for why he feels the way he feels from bits and pieces of rhetoric absorbed from the culture around him. Those bits get reassembled into an unnerving and explosive and uncomfortable and stupid and terrifying and pathetic rage, but the man isn’t Cicero, or even the author of a deranged but cogent manifesto. The ‘reasons” doesn’t really need to make sense, and I don’t think this movie, at bottom, is insisting that Joker is really “making the case” for anything but the case for what, if you spend a lot of time talking to seriously ill patients, you’re likely to encounter in real life. Do people imagine that the unstable schizophrenics in our psychiatric hospitals are giving eloquent, nuanced speeches about shame and stigma when they try to articulate their discontent? Is that what they need to do to be sympathetic, and worth our compassion, instead of being told that their illness “isn’t an excuse” and that they’re actually motivated by racism, or sexism, or dangerous antifa sympathy, or whatever else it is that would let the critic assign this clearly unpleasant person to the “other team” of their bourgeois cultural conflict? I think a lot of people imagine that there’s a certain creative faculty at work in the elaborate delusions of schizophrenics. But there isn’t, really. We’re just sponges. We don’t know how to sort or rank information. All of it just goes in, and gets blended up and distorted, and then gets vomited back up again. It’s sound and fury, signifying nothing. I think Joker baffles critics, woke and unwoke, in part because it does not commit to any moral content at all, even affirmative nihilism. It’s just a movie about a crazy man, abandoned by the state, who makes people uncomfortable, and then does terrible things. That’s all. But perhaps it’s easier to believe that this movie is some great contemporary touchstone in some great ongoing rhetorical conflict, a great commentary on the war between middle-class striver liberal cultural critics and middle-class striver reactionary grifters, than it is to just take it for what it plainly wants to be: a movie about a crime which was committed a generation ago, slowly and with largely good intentions, against a population of people who are unsympathetic and unpleasant and sometimes dangerous and utterly unable to take care of themselves. As Fleck’s social worker says to him, when she tells him that the city has cut funding for the department: the people in charge “don’t really give a shit about people like you.” They “don’t give a shit about people like me either.” They didn’t. They still don’t. None of them. Not the state, or the rich, or the woke, or the right-wing, or anyone at all. Because crazy people make people feel uncomfortable. It’s better to pretend that they’re just toxic. It’s better not to remember what we did to them at all.

I suppose I should provide something like a review before I go. Here it is: Joker is a perfectly fine movie. Joaquin Phoenix will probably win an Oscar, but his performance is stronger than the script, which is clunky in parts. The dialogue is occasionally ham-fisted. The batman myth-serving bits are shoehorned in and dull. The movie isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s worth your $10 and your time, if you want to go see a movie this week. Go see it! Or don’t. It’s just fine.