The psychosis of an Unreliable Narrator and its effect on narrative structure.
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazy out there?”*
This one line, and the images of Gotham descending into chaos sum up the intended Premise of Joker—and the blowback one receives when suggesting that a comic book movie can be fixed.
A 68% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes is not good. A score that low indicates an inability of the story to communicate its message clearly. Without Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and without the pantheon of Batman lore, you effectively have nothing.
Some love Joker. Others hate it. And many more exist in-between. This fluidity of acceptance is a problem for Authors with something to say.
A problem that can be fixed with a better understanding of narrative structure.
Separating Entertainment from Structure
The majority of negative reviews for Joker center around its ignorance of racial influences and its meek attempt at copying the early work of Martin Scorsese.
This is not that kind of review.
In fact, this isn’t an entirely negative review. Personally, I enjoyed Joker. I liked Joaquin’s acting. I liked seeing the Wayne family from a different point-of-view. I basically had a good time.
But I just didn’t see the point of the whole thing. And I felt like something was missing. Both indicate, to me, the presence of an incomplete argument and therefore deficient and ineffective narrative structure.
Entertainment is not meaning. Whether or not one enjoys the experience of a story bears little on the substance of that story’s intended message. I love Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—but I have no idea what it means. I love The Dark Knight—and I know exactly what Christopher Nolan was trying to say.
This review is a review of the narrative structure of Joker and what could have been done to fix its low critical response.
If rating based on Entertainment alone, I give Joker 4 out of 5 stars.
If rating on Structure and the quality of its meaning, I give it, at most, 2 stars.
The Intent of The Premise
While it’s impossible to know the Author’s original intent from this side of a story (the Audience side), one recognizes enough clues in service of a common purpose.
A general sense of apprehension motivates conflict both external and internal. An issue of vulnerability and an emphasis on self implies enough disconnection to effectively solve those problems.
Put together, these repeatable instances of purpose suggest one overarching Premise:
Making an intention of formulating a concept of who you are raises your frequency, while balancing your apprehension and addressing your resistance towards being menacing with others.
In other words, add a little theory to balance out your apprehensions, and you can feel better about terrorizing others.
Sounds like Joker to me.
Seen objectively, Arthur’s medical “condition” is what holds him back in his interaction with others. This structured explanation, or Theory, as to why he laughs uncontrollably, creeps out parents on the bus and leads to him bombing at the night club.
Taken subjectively, Theory is just the thing Arthur needs to find some sort of existential peace. His monologue on set explaining why we get what we deserve signals an intention to receive greater Theory into himself. This violent manifesto structures and formulates the concept of the Joker—as well as providing ample fuel for those theorizing the whole film took place in his head.
As with Inception, it doesn’t matter whether or not the events were real or imagined—the meaning remains the same:
Theory brings balance to apprehension, making it easier to menace others.
The Myth of the Unreliable Narrator
Many turn to simplistic notions of narrative to explain something much more complicated. Like its meaningless cousin, the MacGuffin, the Unreliable Narrator comforts those who maintain a story is a thing unto itself. Writing off context as sleight-of-hand, they fail to see a story for what it truly is—an analogy to our mind in process.
Some see Arthur’s story entirely made up. They think the events reside in the poor man’s head and that his recounting them is an attempt to justify the killing of his mother.
They’re not wrong.
Others see the story as an attempt on Joker’s behalf to assume responsibility for the creation of the Batman. They see his account of the riot and the subsequent murders an attempt by a narcissist to make himself a part of the tragedy.
They’re not wrong.
Some just see a psycho making excuses for violent and inexcusable behavior.
They’re not wrong either.
Regardless of the specifics of storytelling, one thing ties all of this unreliability together: the narrative Element of Theory.
Theory is the counter-balance to apprehension, an abundance of Hunch. The Hunch that things are “crazy out there.” The Hunch that a billionaire boss will take care of a former lover. The Hunch that one’s purpose in life is to make people laugh.
Hunches drive conflict in Joker—inequities that only find equity in Theory.
Joker argues a structured explanation, or Theory, regardless of source and regardless of believability, tempers the angst of Hunch—but only for the individual.
After all, it’s the only way to keep from going crazy.
The unreliability of the “unreliable narrator” is, therefore, an essential part of Joker’s narrative structure. It’s not an excuse to discount meaning.
The Holistic’s Approach to Conflict
The sequencing of events in Joker and the emphasis on self over goal-resolution indicate a Holistic Premise. Holistic in the sense of working through the narrative in terms of inequity resolution, not in some linear misinterpretation of problem-solving from a “worldly” perspective.
Arthur brings a gun to a children’s hospital. He dances after committing his first triple-murder. He waltzes up to the Wayne manor unannounced to visit his brother.
None of these make sense—to a Linear mind. To a Holistic mindset, one given more to balance and environment, they seem like perfectly good responses considering the difficult circumstances.
Structuring a film this way is a surefire way to alienate a significant portion of your Audience—particularly those drawn to comic book movies, where Linearity often saves the day. And even if the individual fails to claim fan status, the Linear mind always struggles to empathize with a character bent on holistic processes of inequity resolution.
In other words, many of the negative reviews are a result of the critic’s Linear mindset, and preference for cause and effect problem-solving.
The problem for the Linear mind is that the Holistic doesn’t instinctively recognize the presence of a problem. And this ignorance fails to motivate the Holistic to find a solution. It’s maddening to the Linear mind.
Theory doesn’t solve Arthur’s problems—but it does set an intention of a better feeling path. It does draw him closer to that sense of non-dualism.
And that’s what matters most to the Holistic mindset.
That, and relationships.
Making a Complete Argument
Perhaps the strangest omission from Joker’s narrative structure is the absence of a strong Relationship Story Throughline perspective. You need this subjective view of inter-personal relationships to counter-balance the more objective interplay found in the Objective Story Throughline. And it’s just not there.
Typically, anything less than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes signals an incomplete story. As web developer Adam Wathan states:
Is there a way to get Rotten Tomatoes to always show the audience score instead of the critics score (in list views throughout the site for example)? High critic score always seems to correlate to "important deeper message" instead of "good movie", I'm just a normal schlub.
That “important deeper message” is the result of a complete storyform working in service of a robust narrative premise. You sense importance because there is enough story to alert your mind to a greater context. You recognize a message because that greater context forms the foundation for an elaborate and compelling argument.
One senses the intent to say something meaningful with Joker. The constant reference to how bad things are and the overwhelming loss of agency hits home with many feeling disconnected to our current political climate. The recognition of Theory and Hunch at play behind the scenes confirms the attempt at a message.
Yet, the film scores a paltry 68% on Rotten Tomatoes.
This lackluster response is the result of an incomplete argument. You can’t present the Main Character Throughline without the opposing view of the Influence Character Throughline. And you can’t indicate objectivity with the Objective Story Throughline unless you also provide the counter-balance of interpersonal subjectivity with the Relationship Story Throughline.
Joker provides the former, it skips the latter.
The double-offense is that this is a Holistically structured narrative. Relationships are the Holistic mind’s bread and butter. It’s one thing to saddle half the Audience with the disconnection felt from a Holistic mindset; it’s quite another to offend the other half without a halfway decent relationship.
The Balance of the Storyform
Compelling arguments present both sides. They don’t shy away from the opposition because they know their team is stronger. Offering both in confidence only reinforces the effectiveness of one’s position.
To balance this argument out, one would have to provide an Influence Character coming from a position of Physics, and a Relationship Story in Mind. Arthur’s psychosis needs a counter-argument based on physicality; Gotham descending into chaos requires the exploration of an intimate fixed mindset between two people.
The Four Throughlines of Joker
Specifically, Arthur needs an Influence Character driven by an Element of Non-accurate to engage in despicable acts. Non-accurate describes someone driven by intolerability or a deviation from the social norms—a deviant. This deviant behavior, seen in external physical conflict to be beneficial (regardless of who it hurts), is what would naturally lead Arthur to make the final leap from Hunch to Theory.
Like Tyler Durden from Fight Club—only real.
And Joker easily provides that perspective from several different characters.
The beatdown in the alley. The attack on the subway. Mom’s insistence on maintaining a lie at the expense of her son. Murray Franklin’s ridicule of him on national television. All of these activities, illustrated as instances of intolerable behavior, drive Arthur to move from a simple Hunch to a deliberate Theory.
This works great to explain Arthur’s personal development, but is not enough to the explain that growth in context of the larger picture. For that, you need a strong Relationship Story Throughline.
The Balance to Plot
Inter-personal conflict seen objectively in the Objective Story Throughline is not enough; you need to pay witness to inter-personal conflict seen subjectively in the Relationship Story Throughline. You need the We perspective to balance out the They perspective.
The “romance” and shared cynical nihilism between Arthur and his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) comes close to providing this much-needed balance. The “world sucks, what are you going to do” attitude is a great start—but it never really culminates into anything meaningful.
Joker’s narrative of high vibration requires a relationship also driven by Hunch. It needs a bond sparked by suspicion, or apprehension, that eventually finds balance in a more structured concrete explanation. Issues of worry in this relationship need to reveal themselves as moments of distrust, with challenges put forth in the form of rash and impulsive behavior.
We get a sense of that with Arthur’s intrusion into Sophie’s home. And a bit more with his appearance on Murray’s show. But without some meaningful connection between those two relationships we’re left to our own devices to fill in the blanks.
Some will fill the empty space with their own experience with mental illness and call the film genius. Others will fail to make the connection and label the incomplete argument juvenile and empty.
Fulfilling One’s Obligation to the Audience
A story is a contract between Author and Audience. Clear and succinct, this bond hides nothing within the fine print. I give you my time, and you provide me some greater meaning.
Joker argues that Theory resolves conflict for the individual, but fails to show up in the objective. That lack of construct for all leads Gotham into a mindset of rash and violent impulsivity. The riot is a release of that suspicion in everyone’s gut that it’s all gone too far.
Why that happens is open to interpretation—something that can easily be explored without the presence of this story.
While the hunch that it’s getting crazy out there may be enough to drive you mad, what does that mean for us?
The inability of Joker to effectively answer this question is why it scores so low amongst those expecting an Author to fulfill his obligation:
Bring meaning to our otherwise empty and meaningless experience.