Joker is the most talked-about film of the season. The film, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, has become a Rorschach test, allowing fans and critics to see what they want. Most viewers agree that Joker is about economic inequality, mental illness, and urban decay in America in the 1970s and early 1980s. Drill down further and the usual tribes fall back to their comfortable positions. To those on the left, Joker is “an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power.” On the right, Joker is director Phillips effort to push back against “woke” PC culture, the film’s protagonist a vicious example of the crazy Antifa left.
There is merit to both arguments, yet at it’s core Joker is about something more fundamental—the search for a lost father. Studies every year reinforce the crucial importance of fathers. According to Psychology Today, “father absence may well be the most critical social issue of our time,” causing a range of problems: drug and alcohol problems, difficulty with relationships, depression, homelessness, delinquency, and physical health problems. “Dad and Me,” a study by the University of Birmingham, concluded that the hunger for fathers is on an epidemic scale, and “father deficit” should be considered a public health issue.
The Psychology Today list of the symptoms are the same ones affecting Joker’s Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man trying to make a living as a street clown in Gotham City circa 1981. Fleck’s life is one of constant suffering, from the beatings at the hands of bullies to the mental illness he tries to contain with seven medications to the frailty of his unstable mother, whom he cares for. Arthur dreams of being a comedian, his sorrowful face coming to joyful life while watching a late night talk show starring Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a character that echoes the Johnny Carson character in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Scorsese’s 1970s work is a major influence on Joker, from the realism of Lawrence Sher’s cinematography to the set designs of the dirty streets of Gotham, a stand in for New York. The character of the Joker, of course, is a mainstay of the Batman universe, but while based on those characters, Joker is not a superhero movie.
In a fantasy sequence (Arthur suffers frequent delusions), Arthur is in the audience of The Murray Franklin Show when Franklin halts the monologue to call him out of the audience. Arthur talks about his care of his mother, and this leads to the two men sharing with each other that they both had fathers who walked out on them. Fleck descends from the audience and onto the stage, sinking into a deep embrace by Franklin. Arthur is a man desperately searching for his father. It can be Murray Franklin, or Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), noted Gotham billionaire and the father of future Batman Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson). Fleck believes that Thomas Wayne is his biological father, but Wayne, a bloviating politician, wants nothing to do with Fleck. As one critic accurately described him, Wayne is “a loathsome oligarch who fancies himself the hero of an Ayn Rand fable.”
When his real and imaginary fathers fail him, Murray Franklin through sarcasm and mockery, Thomas Wayne by delivering an outright punch to his face, Fleck rockets out of control. His search for his father a failure, Fleck stops taking his medication then goes on a killing spree, finding his family in the Antifa-style street protests that throughout Joker have been building to a boil. Fleck has found his protector. Protestors violently rescue Arthur from police custody, yanking him out of a car and literally lifting him up like a messianic figure, transforming him into their technicolor savior. As with Antifa, the goal is less about politics and more about personal salvation and finding a family when the real one has failed.
While critics and fans have compared Joker to the gritty films of the 1970s and early 1980s, the movie it actually has most in common with is Ad Astra, a science fiction drama that was released this year just before Joker. Ad Astra was most accurately described by Bill Desowitz as “a Father-son Apocalypse Now in deep space.”
Starring Brad Pitt and directed by John Gray, Ad Astra—a better film than Joker—is also about the ache for an absent father. Where Joker is broad, violent and colorful, Ad Astra is quiet and minimalist. Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut in the near-future. Roy is repairing a massive space tower when some form of power surge disrupts the entire structure, sending Roy tumbling towards Earth. The Solar System has been struck by power surges originating from Neptune, violent pulses that have the potential of destroying all life. Roy is prepared by the U.S. Space Command, who inform him that the source of the problem may be his father, legendary astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Sixteen years ago the senior McBride led the ”Lima Project,” whose purpose was to search the Solar System for intelligent life. Clifford hasn’t been heard from since then, and is assumed by many to be dead. Roy must cast off into space to find his father and shut Lima down. Even while on Earth, Roy’s father was distant and abusive. To put it mildly, Roy is not looking forward to the trip.
With the exception of a side adventure on the moon where Roy is attacked by space pirates, Ad Astra is almost completely comprised of Roy’s deep journey to confront his father. This is Brad Pitt’s movie, and he carries it beautifully. The soundtrack is a perfect fit by minimalist composer Max Richter, and the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoyte (Dunkirk) provides wonderfully awe-inspiring and majestic shots of the planets.
Pitt is every bit as magnetic as Joaquin Phoenix is in Joker, but he’s acting on a different frequency. Whereas Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a childlike clown who is eager to please only to have a sick society destroy his spark, Roy is emotionally closed down. The astronaut doesn’t react when his wife Eve (Liv Tyler), tired of Roy’s zombie personality, walks out on him before the mission. Technicians preparing him for flight marvel at Roy’s low blood pressure and absence of adrenal spikes. “I will not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important,” Roy says in one of many voice-overs that manifest his cool dedication.
In Ad Astra, the breathtakingly vast miles of space and the gargantuan planets like Saturn and Neptune can be thought to represent the subconscious. Pitt’s Roy McBride is taking an interior journey for his father, as well as one traversing the planets, the grand darkness of space like the depths of Roy’s psyche. In his insightful book Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men, Jungian psychologist James Hollis observers that “each man carries a longing for his father and his tribal fathers.” “Father gives light, life, energy—no wonder he has historically been associated with the sun,” Hollis notes. “But father can also blast, wither, crush.” When a father is absent, it leaves a soul-deep longing in a man.
Pitt, brilliant in the role of Roy, holds fast to understatement, even—and most affectingly—when he finally finds his father. Even from millions of miles away Clifford McBride was casting a gigantic shadow over his son, literally a Saturnine darkness that has made Roy shut down emotionally. In Pitt’s intimate and moving performance, a small smile for his wife who awaits him becomes a powerful spiritual and emotional breakthrough, a beacon signaling that he has not only rescued his father, but himself.