Here is a partial list of the things you will see in “Joy”, that you won’t see in a lot of other movies:
K-Mart parking lots full of slush.
Styrofoam, used the way Styrofoam was used in the 80’s–liberally and everywhere.
Brown velvet upholstery.
Thickly carpeted staircases, like the way all your friends’ houses used to be when you were growing up.
Ubiquitously cheap cars.
Home Shopping Network jewelry.
The Home Shopping Network, period.
Sparse and unprofessional home decor.
Thick, powdery 90’s foundation makeup.
Getting the picture? Do you remember this stuff? Because David O. Russell does, and increasingly he is making this world–the world of two-to-three-decade-old consumer goods, used in middle-to-lower class houses everywhere between the coasts–his home court. To watch “American Hustle”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, and now “Joy”, is to watch Russell carving out a directorial turf–Woody Allen gets Manhattan and Paris, Michael Bay gets Los Angeles, but David O. Russell gets *everything in between*. And holy shit, does he get it: no other current screenwriter has such a strong homing instinct for the precise details of American middle-class family dynamics.
Consider the opening of the movie: Joy is surprised by her dad’s unexpected return to her house. She lets him move in–of course, he’s her dad–but he has to take space in the basement, because Joy’s grandmother has the guest room. The side room is out, because that’s where Joy’s mother, who never leaves the house, mainlines her soap operas 24/7. Unfortunately, the basement is very crowded. Because Joy’s ex-husband lives down there, too. None of this is presented as “cute” or “quirky”; Joy is stressed, already late, and trying her best to manage her father; on his way in, he dumps a pile of laundry in her arms, kisses her on the cheek and tells her she has the “magic touch” for whitening clothes, then picks a screaming fight with her mother and starts to pick one with her ex-husband until Joy must literally separate them with a boundary ribbon of toilet paper. As she climbs the stairs from the basement, already resigned to being late for work, you can hear their inevitable argument ramping back up.
Does any of this sound familiar? Just off the top of my head, I can think of about eight women whose family lives are minefields rivaling Joy’s: I bet you can, too. This round-the clock balancing act is what’s meant, in feminist discourse, by “emotional labor”; in five exhausting minutes, we see Joy caring for a mother whose clear mental illness she can’t afford to treat, accommodating a father whose emotional age hovers around 19, taking a scolding from her half-sister for allowing their grandmother to leave the house in winter to drive Joy’s two children to an event. When she has the epiphany that leads to her invention, her family offers begrudging support, larded heavily with jealousy, passive-aggression, and bad legal advice. Watching Joy try to keep her head above water would be compelling enough viewing, but Joy doesn’t want to just tread water–she wants to succeed at the American Dream. Tall order.
Luckily for her, she is in a David O. Russell movie. And all these note-perfect details should not distract you from the fact that David O. Russell writes fairy tales, fantasies in which scrappy underdogs yank themselves, by their bootstraps, into the stratosphere. The nostalgia impelling us into this world is driven by real details–we who lived through the 80s and 90s recognize the currency of brown velvet sofas and black elastic hair ties and QVC. We can smell Joy’s living room. But the American Dream that Joy is chasing died well before she was born, if indeed it ever was true. The real engine driving this train–driving Joy–is our shared wish that somehow, if we work hard enough, if we spin enough plates, if we have the Next Big Idea, if we never give up, it might come true again.
I’m certain several of my friends will be surprised I went to see this movie. Given the reasonable challenges to the veracity of Chris Kyle’s autobiography, and the immediate critical identification of the movie as a piece of right-wing propaganda, many of them made the eminently defensible decision not to enrich the filmmakers. But I like war movies, and I always prefer to know what I’m talking about if I’m going to have an opinion on a movie, so I went, and here’s what I thought.
I think those critics who’ve pegged this movie as propaganda have made the crucial error of confusing the movie’s subject with its viewpoint, and have overlooked several directorial choices that undercut Chris Kyle’s worldview at key moments, making this movie a portrait of a man with an extremely regressive worldview, not an endorsement of that worldview.
Far from a hagiography, this movie (I thought) went out of its way to show Chris Kyle as a not-too-self-aware, profoundly ego-driven man who, while extremely gifted as a sniper, frequently made terrible tactical errors as a leader, and who could easily have been inclined to embellish or fabricate his own achievements. From the very beginning of his career in the military, he’s shown as reactive, easily gulled, quick to take on challenges simply because they are challenges, not because they’re worthwhile or of particular interest to him. He drifts through a lackluster rodeo career until September 11th invests him with a burning desire to enlist—the very nature of his patriotism is entirely formed in reaction. (A military recruiter funnels him into the Navy with the mildest of feints, simply by pointing out that the Navy “isn’t for everybody”—which Kyle takes as impugning his masculinity and then follows through to the logical conclusion of taking on SEAL training.) This is a man who so confuses his rifle with his dick that, when dating his future wife, he literally cannot shoot straight until he gets laid. When one of the men in his unit is shot, he reacts emotionally instead of intelligently, leading the rest of his unit back out into an ambush because he’s looking for revenge—later on, he gives away an entire unit’s position in order to take out one sniper.
In one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, an officer calls Kyle in to question him about a kill he made. The victim’s wife has claimed that the man was carrying a Koran; Kyle sharply retorts that the object in question was large, metal, heavy, cylindrical, and was being carried like a weapon, and, his voice dripping with condescension, asks what the officer “thought it looked like” before walking off. A hagiography would let this be a triumphant scene for Kyle. Instead, the scene lingers several beats, as the officers turn to each other and register concern over Kyle’s increasingly stupid and obstinate behavior. The scene is mirrored later on in a briefing, when Kyle asks if a target is “the Jordanian” sniper he’s built up in his mind as an archenemy. “He can be whoever you need him to be,” responds the commanding officer, clearly disdainful of Kyle’s need to have a black-hat, moustache-twirling villain.
And that brings me to my final point: this movie goes out of its way to show that the “us versus them”, Crusader mentality that Kyle embraced as a way of surviving his multiple tours of duty was a destructive and dangerous one, which (when he brought it home) so alienated him from his wife and family that he very nearly lost both. One of PTSD’s many definitions is “the persistence into civilian life of the reasonable adaptations made to survive in combat”. Chris Kyle believed that the war being fought by Americans was being fought with holy warrant, and he believed it because he saw terrible, inexcusable things in combat and found that having a black-and-white, us-versus-them mentality made the daily horrors of his job easier to process. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (basically an advocacy group for atheists in the military) has amassed a fair amount of evidence that a sizeable “Crusader” subculture exists within the armed forces, a subculture which basically believes that the military is the conduit through which Christianity will triumph over Islam. I submit to you that this movie neither excuses nor flinches away from that Crusader belief, or from the deep moral queasiness of the war that it seeks to allay and silence—and that is precisely why you ought to see it. I watched this movie in a theater packed full of conservative, red-meat rural farmers, men in John Deere hats with their wives and eighteen-year-old kids with Skoal can rings in their pockets. A paean to the righteousness of the American cause would have gone over just fine with that audience; instead, as the movie unfolded, the theater got quieter and quieter, until the credits rolled and the audience, stunned and silent, got up and shuffled out completely wordlessly. It wasn’t until we got to the theater doors that one of them spoke.
“I’ve never been so quiet leaving a theater,” he said.
I’ll let you decide what that means.