A Gang Chaplain on ‘Joker’ and Its Reviews
My wife, a mental health therapist, told me she’d pass on seeing Joker last month. Too much after a day’s work with others’ mental anguish.
But as a jail chaplain and gang pastor, myself, who has spent fourteen years up close with men and women in gangs and the violent offenders who end up on the front page of our county’s newspaper here in the far Northwest, I have an appetite for these stories. Some of the men I’ve accompanied have those same sad-clown diamonds permanently tattooed above and below their eyes.
In fact, I wrote a book about my encounters, and sometimes friendships, with these members of my community. The main character was a meth-addicted gang member, known in our local news cycle for invading a 93-year-old woman’s home while on the run from dogs and helicopters, tying her up and assaulting her, which lead to her death weeks later. Over two years of one-on-one visits, I grew to care deeply for this complex and frightfully honest young man. He contained multitudes. He literally rotted to death in prison a year later. His street name was Lil’ Jokes.
So, late on Joker’s opening night, after our toddler fell asleep, I drove to the actual movie theater for the first time in over a year. I was riveted.
It was refreshing to see such a tale where the lonely story of a very broken, complicated individual (not a mastermind) intersects with larger societal phenomena like class inequality and mass media, to create a chillingly plausible 2019 “villain”: an unwitting meme, a media-loop mask, a cracked psyche lifted onto television screen for ratings and giggles then — after exploding in the media’s hands — lifted onto the shoulders of furious crowds, becoming the shorthand face for a fire that’s been growing across the land. I thought it was brilliant.
But I came home and read review after review that tore this Joker up.
The top critics took turns kicking at it, like the slick-haired banker bros that jump the movie’s pitiful clown-for-hire protagonist Arthur Fleck in the subway. “Empty,” they said. “Foggy.” “Shallow,” said the Washington Post. “Nihilistic,” the WSJ shook its head. “Hollow to the core,” wrote even my favorite film writer, Alissa Wilkinson at Vox. “Are you kidding me?” mocked A.O. Scott, towering over the fray from the New York Times.
Some of the men I’ve accompanied have those same sad-clown diamonds permanently tattooed above and below their eyes.
Maybe Todd Phillips’ Joker fell far from the Scorsese caliber it surely aped. Fine. I’m not driven to write an artistic defense of a movie already making plenty of money. I’m more troubled by a distinct set of reactions among some of our top cultural critics that goes beyond film reviews and points to a larger problem — a national narrative addiction we haven’t fully faced. These Batman sagas may be the exact place to start.
Symbols of Evil
Wilkinson spoke for many reviewers when she named the beloved Batman tradition this new Joker annoyingly resisted: “Since his creation in 1940, the Joker has simply been the personification of evil.” A.A. Dowd, writing for AV Club, rolled his eyes at a Joker movie that suggests this sociopath has a backstory. Like many film critics, he preferred Christopher Nolan’s and Heath Ledger’s symbol-of-pure-chaos-and-evil Joker. A bad guy who “just wants to see the world burn.” Period. No history. No “sob story” as Dowd called it. He thought this a “fiendishly clever choice”: to “clown on the very idea of motivation.” “Maybe that other Joker had it right,” Dowd concludes: “Origin stories are a joke.”
After spending fourteen years working rather intimately with actual villains — gang leaders who’ve organized a town’s disaffected and wounded young men into a small local brand of menace; lone murderers; cop-shooters; troubled minds like the man who drove another man into the woods upriver with a girlfriend, tied him to a tree stump and killed him in unspeakably grisly fashion — I would say that every actor of malevolence has a backstory.
I’ve never met a shooter who emerged from a vat of boiling acid and got plastic surgery under a swinging warehouse bulb. While I have met slimy-voiced liars who cleverly make a joke of their origin story (as Ledger’s Joker did), telling slippery new versions each time, it’s never chilling to me. No more than when politicians do the same as their career evolves.
However, I have met many unstable, wandering tragedies like Arthur Fleck in our lockup system. So I welcome his arrival on the main screen.
I regularly sit in private, late-night rooms with him. He’s every poorly groomed man wearing red scrubs and orange rubber slippers and a plastic ID bracelet over scarred wrists. The halogen lights illuminate hesitant tears like few films could. I’ve never met a bad guy who hasn’t lived some epic saga of child abuse, abandonment, sexual assault, neglect, domestic violence in the home, and being generally disposed of by caretakers and institutions that were supposed to take care of him from an early age. I dare an audience to sit through one of these “slow burn origin stories” and not, well, sob.
This idea that a villain can be a symbol of pure chaos and evil (multiple critics unsurprisingly smile back at the coin-flipping menace Anton Chigurh in McCarthy’s No County For Old Men) — I don’t think that’s a sophisticated narrative choice. It’s an old American addiction.
“Opacity of motive,” as it’s called in lit classes, is rarely used in American popular narratives to instill curiosity (as it should), a troubling sense of mystery that shakes our simple formulations of human motivation (or forces a mirroring of our own, like the opacity of a darkened window). Most of the time, as with Ledger, big screen bad guys with no relevant past are just another relapse into our nation’s historical high: tossing off all burdensome sense of history. Backstory is a drag. Leave the Old World behind. America is a symbol, a New World. Indigenous people’s history on this continent? Their reasons for the torrent of arrows firing our way? They are face-painted symbols to conquer, over and over and over again.
Fear is part of the drug.
Wilkinson at Vox honestly confessed, in a way, to miss the old cinematic willies — now that audiences are shown the unspooky, tragic mess of Arthur Fleck’s clown-for-hire, mental-health-services-defunded existence in Reagan-era poverty: “The terror of the Joker is curiously defanged.”
That electric chill we enjoy as moviegoers — do we not see that’s the same device of evening news and election ads, a fiction of prescription-strength fear, that we’ve grown up on? It’s so familiar, we’ve become connoisseurs.
This idea that a villain can be a symbol of pure chaos and evil — I don’t think that’s a sophisticated narrative choice. It’s an old American addiction.
In recent decades we as a country have made a rocky recovery (dare I say slow repentance) from this narrative. I’m talking about that long streak of material from Breaking Bad to Cobra Kai, from Making A Murderer to “The True Story of Three Little Pigs,” a clever children’s book supposedly penned by the Big Bad Wolf. In this recovery trend, Phillips’ new Joker delivers a painfully sober re-imagination of our oldest Hollywood villain. Sure, he cuts the shape from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but he pastes this more mature psychology into our favorite comic book mythos of Good Vs. Evil. Not perfection, as recovery groups say, but progress. Progress on the big screen.
It’s the critics’ highbrow preference for the old American narrative, yet in more stylish terms, that troubles me.
Those old tastes have costs.
We have seen what a nation addicted to and raised on “pure-evil” narratives does. It arms itself. No need for due process. No time for democratic deliberation. Just swift and spectacular strength. So our obsession with more and more Batman reboots over the last decade is no coincidence. Batman is America’s longstanding furtive fantasy of unilateral war. Vigilante disregard for courts. Bruce Wayne is billionaire black ops. He is police brutality in darker armor with flawless getaway immunity, dining in nearby mansions. Nolan was onto something in The Dark Knight when he revealed the Bat Cave as the basement of a corporate empire, its strange armory of battle vehicles and techy weapons to have been developed by Wayne Enterprises’ military contracts.
The No Backstory Bad Guy is much easier for kids to understand. Or, kids of privilege, maybe. So it’s fitting that rich little boys — whether they become presidents or billionaire caped avengers — rise into American hero roles with fancy weapons to blow them all away. We turn out at the ballot box and the box office alike in surprising numbers every time. It’s our jam
When I was the age of the little Bruce Wayne we see briefly (but perfectly) in this recent Joker (around third grade), Saddam Hussein was held up in television and my elementary school’s patriotic assemblies as a symbol of pure evil. Then once again, when I was in college. Bush the Second dog-whistled moviegoing Americans by calling new villains with their entire targeted region an “Axis of Evil.” Both times our country cheered our way into two televised wars that are still burning in the middle east.
My generation was sent over there as trained terrorists, recruited barely out of high school, and we’ve brought that fire home with us. It still burns in veteran suicide rates and ongoing domestic violence. It eventually ends up smoldering against itself in our prison system — where our used-up firing squads now enter through both doors, in both uniforms, either as new offenders or new corrections staff.
One could easily argue America’s unique problem of mass incarceration is a direct result of three generations of “tough on crime” political narratives. We couldn’t get enough of it. Candidates from both parties upped the dosage on that line, constructing the lowly criminal on drugs as the new symbol of chaos to round up.
But now, we are waking up from those dark years to all the loaded prisons and policies piling up around our states like bottles and unpaid bills strewn around an addict’s house.
It’s fitting that rich little boys — whether they become presidents or billionaire caped avengers — rise into American hero roles with fancy weapons to blow them all away.
I heard it clearest from A.O. Scott, while dismissing Joker and its early controversy hype: “To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting: it must have, if not a coherent point of view, at least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some kind of imaginative contact with the world as we know it.”
The world as we know it.
I’ve spent my adult life hearing the stories of the troubled folks in our local jail. We exchange letters when they’re shipped around the state. I press my forehead to cold bullet proof glass at solitary confinement cell-front visitations that took weeks of emails and paperwork to clear.
I accompany them after release in my own car to mental hospitals, treatment centers, chemical dependency evaluations, and long rides to immigration hearings. I’ve scrambled to find new education solutions for gang-involved teenagers, medical funding for mental health meds, always when funding is cut and no one seems to care or be listening.
Phillips’ and Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck Joker story makes massive imaginative contact with this world, as I and many others know it.
There’s a scene where Arthur steals the old case file on his mother when she was detained as criminally psychotic at Arkham State Hospital. Panting, hiding in a stairwell, he reads the reports of his young, addicted mother suffering assault and battery at the hands of boyfriends in the home, who together left her small boy Arthur tied to the radiator, where he was found (medical photos flip by) with aggravated signs of head trauma. I wanted to cry or vomit at this scene. I thought of my wife’s initial Hell No to seeing this.
I would argue it’s diagnostically sociopathic as a culture to not have some natural sob-reflex at these stories.
Another review called the revelation of such a backstory “manipulative.” That tells me at least this person felt something, and resented being made to feel it. But, sadly, this is the only world most of the bad guys I’ve met know.
They resent having to feel what they were made to feel, too. Get it? Joker gets it right.
It’s not just a can’t-get-laid-resentment, which Vulture claimed to make the film “an anthem for incels.” Rather, it’s a crushing, stomped-on existence among a suffering underclass. It’s hard to miss in Joaquin Phoenix’s full-costume sunset dance down the Gotham stairs that filled the trailers and cinema posters: those can-can-style kicks are clear trauma echoes of several scenes where Arthur Fleck is literally stomped on by street kids, then heckling Wall Street employees. If we see them as random, insane antics, if we miss the trajectory of those heel-thrust kicks on his way to the fatal finale, then we miss the whole movie.
And I fear we will keep missing why the chronically abused youth I work with might grow up and put ink on their faces, use the gun someone handed them at a young age, and point it at the faces that laugh at them.
The dozens of homies I work with, who actually do things like this sometimes, are trying as hard as they can to erase the humiliated boy that suffered weakness and scorn, and — with shaved heads, ink masks, monikers like “Muerte,” “Menace,” “Trigger,” or “Spider” — are hoping the world will now see them as fearsome symbols of Evil and Chaos instead.
And we’ve been conditioned to buy it every time.
Dropping the Act
Here’s a true story of what recovery from all this can look like. Straight from the bowels of current-day Arkham Asylum. (Actual mental health asylums have all been defunded and shut down across America; our prisons serve that purpose now.)
Six years ago a gang member in prison called me collect and suggested I write a letter to the troubled kid in his neighboring solitary confinement cell. His street name was Giggles. I wrote to him. Giggles, or Rudy, just twenty years old, had already stabbed four different guards in three different facilities since aging into the adult super-maxes on his eighteenth birthday. He was the highest security threat in the state department of corrections. Access to phone calls, receiving books, and even normal food — it was all taken away. Staff showed up at his door armed. He complained in his first letters to me about being caged, treated like an animal. “And then they act surprised,” he said, “when the animal bites them?” He was playing out the character they’d scripted together.
I wanted to know his past.
The dozens of homies I work with— with shaved heads, ink masks, monikers like “Muerte” or “Menace” — are hoping the world will now see them as fearsome symbols of Evil and Chaos instead.
Over the next few months of letters, slowly processed through staff screening, Rudy got in touch with his backstory. “I’ve never really thought about it,” he processed on looseleaf lined paper. Because no one, he said, had ever asked. Turns out, what little he remembered of his childhood was being locked in the bathroom by his caretakers as a boy. He would escape out the shower window. His stepdad would catch him, beat him with appliance cables, and lock him back in the bathroom with more threats. “Like an animal,” he wrote. His own recovery meant getting to know his own painful story, the tragic patterns he still acted out.
During these months with just one person on the other side of an envelope listening to his life, he didn’t assault guards. Better behavior got him one phone call a month. I got to hear his voice. Then he “earned” the privilege to meet with a mental health therapist. But he told me he was afraid the guards were taking his ceasefire as weakness.
Rudy is not just a model for how to better understand Bad Guys. Jokers. Or their humiliated Arthur Flecks beneath the creepy persona. Rudy is a metaphor for America. His recovery is model for our own recovery as an armed culture trying to break out of our costly villain-narrative addictions.
Just last month Rudy called me and told me he lost his level again. He’d fashioned another sharp homemade weapon in his cell. “But wait, check this out — ”
He told me he was about to lash out when he caught himself in this old story. He alerted the staff. He turned over the weapon. “I ratted on myself bro,” he laughed.
I would love to see a film version of when that crude knife slid through the handcuff slot, a close-up shot of the officer’s face meeting Rudy’s through the thick glass, surprised to face each other in a new story.
I wonder what the critics would say.