Joker reviews are piling up at Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve taken a tour of reviews from their “top critics” page. I needed to find out if the thing I feared about the eventual reviews was coming to pass. It is, and so here we go again.
I want to start with Anthony Lane’s review in The New Yorker, not because it’s a bad review but because it includes a disappointing bit of both-sidesism.
Trailing clouds of controversy, “Joker” descends upon us. The online discussion has mounted from the rampant to the manic, undeterred, or perhaps exacerbated, by the fact that nobody, apart from critics and festivalgoers, has actually seen the movie. (Emotions run high when people are low on facts.) In one corner are those who crave a masterpiece: a film that will unearth a new psychic intensity in the domain of the comic book, ideal for our distended times. In the opposite corner are those who fear that Phillips and Phoenix may give license to all the lonely people out there—in particular, to any messed-up white guys who feel wretchedly uncherished and would welcome a tutorial in the art of lashing out.
Lane believes that the debate over Joker is between rabid fanboys and moral scolds, missing entirely that what many of us have been raising instead are concerns about the movie connecting mental illness to mass violence. As pointed out every time there’s another shooting, the mentally ill are more likely by far to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
So, with Lane very helpfully describing what too many other critics and outside observers have (mis)construed, ironically in an almost cartoon-like oversimplification, as the nature of the debate, let’s get into what the “top critics” are saying about Joker and mental illness. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to quote from all of them.)
- Adam Graham for The Detroit News: “‘What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash?’ It’s a question Arthur poses, and ‘Joker’ gives the answer.”
- Peter Travers for Rolling Stone: “Is sympathy for this devil another form of advocacy for vigilante justice? Or are Phoenix and Phillips pushing for a fuller understanding of how a victim can morph into a victimizer, an indisputable fact of life that tragically resonates today?”
- Brian Truitt for USA Today: “Instead, ‘Joker’ at its core is a cautionary tale about how we treat others and the potentially combustible situation that arises when people are made to feel different rather than welcomed.”
- Mick LaSalle for San Francisco Chronicle: “The very structure of their movie is that of a rags-to-riches tale in which an abused and scorned mentally ill man achieves his apotheosis through violence.”
- A.A. Dowd for The A.V. Club: “Joker aims to show us how a damaged man, ignored by the world and denied the help he needs, can become a truly dangerous one”
- Stephanie Zacharek for Time: “But it’s not as if we don’t know how this pathology works: In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week.”
You see several themes over and over: “a mentally ill loner”, “a victim can morph into a victimizer”, “scorned mentally ill man achieves his apotheosis through violence”, “a damaged man … can become a truly dangerous one”, “there’s a mass shooting … by a guy like Arthur practically every other week”.
In the ongoing interplay between film and critics, mental illness shows up as the villain, despite the real-world statistics on mental illness and violence. Those reviews who try to skirt the mental illness instead resort to the movie being, I guess about, bullying: “when people are made to feel different rather than welcomed”.
Except that in the real world, truly marginalized people don’t lash out like this. The ones who lash out are, more often than not, mediocre white men who aren’t “made to feel different” but who simply are faced with living in a world where people other than people like themselves are finding their voices, and their power. Men who suddenly aren’t seen as special just for being mediocre white men. To argue this is a film about “how a victim can morph into a victimizer” ignores the real-world truth that, usually, white men are the victimizers to begin with.
You simply can’t use a mediocre white man to represent some sort of societal crisis of victimization.
Mara Reinstein, for US Weekly, undoes the bullying narrative in just two sentences: “There’s another bullied character in Joker, a dwarf that also works for the clown company. He’s the most gentle and soft-spoken person in the whole film.”
So, it’s not being bullied, then. It’s not being victimized. It’s something else. Too many critics are falling for the idea that the something else is mental illness. David Edelstein, for Vulture, gets it (although you already know), explaining that Joker in fact “panders to selfish, small-minded feelings of resentment.”
That it does so both by hiding behind a dangerous mythology about mental illness and by trying to dress up its actual resentment as some kind of real victimization would be funny if it weren’t so sad.