Joker is either a senseless, plotless ploy, perfectly embodying its title in the viewer’s experience of the film (the joke’s on you), or it’s an urgent message meant to warn us about the terrifying implications of metaphysical emptiness. Whichever it is hinges on a single line chillingly uttered by Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the mentally ill and disturbed Gotham resident, who claims the name Joker less as an alter ego meant to terrify and more as an apt description of his own miserable existence. About three-fourths into the movie, Fleck tells the talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) right before accompanying him on stage, “I don’t believe in anything.” This single sentence infuses what precedes it with meaning and provides an apt premonition for what will follow.
I hear statements like these thrown around often in my world, but I have never believed that someone actually means them as much as I believe Arthur Fleck. Because for Arthur these words have transformed his reality, and what we see evolve on screen for two hours is the world one experiences when nothing is at stake. When nothing is real.
We are a value-driven species. We experience, we evaluate, we act. Our actions are chosen based on our values. And our valuations are based on what we believe to be true about our experiences. Arthur is no different than any one of us. He experiences, he evaluates, he acts. But at a specific point in his life, a point with a long history unseen, but a climax which we experience as viewers, the bridge between experience and evaluation breaks down. Without belief in anything, without a firm commitment to, and thus distinction between, reality and falsehood, Arthur’s evaluations are deflated, stripped of meaning, and essentially eliminated. He experiences, he acts. And the result is appalling, plain and simply so.
In a brilliant way, though, the film enacts this experiment in metaphysical nihilism on its viewer, not only presenting Arthur as an example, but causing the viewer to ask herself what about the film is really happening and what is merely a delusion. One wonders why this is such an uncomfortable experience, as it was indeed for me. It’s because we experience what it’s like to not believe in anything. Our ability to evaluate our experience based on truth and falsehood is eradicated. There are no standards for what is real because we only see the movie through the delusional eyes of Arthur Fleck.
It’s been hard for me to compare this movie to anything else. It follows no formula, no guide, and it has no expectations for itself. I credit this achievement to the near-perfect performance from Phoenix, who disappears before your very eyes, and the uncanny ability of Todd Phillips to contain almost every single scene within the deranged subjective perspective of Fleck’s mind. As a comic-book movie, Joker is especially important, as it subtly critiques the incessant releases of big-budget superhero films, which tend to distract us from our own forms of nihilism. In an ingenious way, Joker, a sensuously bleak and nihilistic film, filled with rare repetitions of mundane moments (like Fleck’s walk through the halls of his apartment), becomes a quiet critique against the excessive materialism and constant consumerism of our own day. For it is these things which hide our own tendencies to not believe in anything at all.