NOTE: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS DISCUSSION OF POTENTIALLY DISTRESSING THEMES, WHICH INCLUDE SEVERE MENTAL DISTRESS, VIOLENCE AND MURDER.
Despite Joker facing accusations of glorifying violence, entrenching the notion of white male privilege, and even of fuelling the rhetoric spouted by extremist hate groups, Todd Phillips’ psychological thriller continues to take the box office by storm. As of November, it passed the $1 billion mark in global box office takings, making it the first R-rated movie to ever reach the milestone!
It would be easy to dismiss the film’s success as the mere consequence of cinema goers flocking to see the latest iteration of one of DC’s most iconic characters – but this would be doing Joker a disservice. While the ‘superhero genre’ has arguably monopolised the film market, (the Disney-Fox merger earlier this year means that the big mouse is estimated to now command 35% of the market!) this alone does not explain the fever pitch interest nor the extensive social commentary the film has generated since its release.
In fact, Joker is arguably the antithesis of its superhero counterparts in just about every way imaginable. Where Avengers:Endgame features an elaborate, CGI-clustered display of its most beloved caped-crusaders fighting across time and space, Joker portrays the plight and transformation of a lone, mentally ill man in an uncaring society. If the likes of Deadpool and Wonder Woman can be said to be faithful adaptations of their respective source material, then Joker, while respectful of its roots, turns this notion on its head. Yet it does so with such startling finesse that its difficult to imagine Warner Brothers not recognising the potential that lies behind telling more adult-orientated DC stories from here on out.
While the titular character is evidently based on his comic-book alter ego, it can be easy to forget this while watching Arthur Fleck’s story unfold throughout the film. His alias and signature cackle aside, Arthur is so life-like, so pitiful, and – dare I say it – so unnervingly relatable, that it can be hard to reconcile him with the clown-like super-villain whose face has adorned the covers of comic books since his inception back in 1940.
Indeed, the character is essentially stripped bare of his cartoonish frills altogether (even the late Heath Ledger’s more gritty portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight retained at least some of the cartoonish elements emblematic of its source material – the ‘magic pencil trick’ scene anyone?), so much so that it’s easy to envision Phillips and co chiselling away at the Clown Prince of Crime’s many layers until there is nothing left – save for the bare bones that keep him from collapsing into an ash-ridden heap of his own nihilistic-driven philosophy.
What we are left with is a brutally honest portrayal of a man who is so far behind in life’s rat-race that he may as well be on the sidelines, perhaps having a giggle to himself here or there as he watches events unfold around him. Indeed, abrupt and often uncontrollable fits of laughter are part of what distinguishes Arthur as an outsider from the get-go. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, these laughing fits are based on a real life condition called Involuntary Emotional Expression Disorder (IEED), also known as ‘pseudobulbar affect’, and is one that actor Joaquin Phoenix researched extensively for the role). Moreover, as unfair as it may be, Arthur embodies many of the qualities that results in him being branded as one of life’s ‘losers’: he’s a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother, he works part time as a clown entertainer, and to reinforce his outsider status, he is extremely socially awkward. His social drawbacks are self-evident, so much so that it comes as little surprise to learn that he’s spent a recent stint incarcerated in Arkham State Hospital – Gotham’s morally dubious answer to containing the insanity that has infested society.
And yet, one cannot help but wonder if everything is at it appears when Arthur is ostensibly shown to be at the mercy of an apathetic society. Not discounting the complexity surrounding discussions on Joker‘s real and unreal scenes, Phoenix himself has admitted to liking the idea that it was the character’s real nature emerging in these moments of seemingly child-like innocence. Perhaps the most telling instance of this takes place in a scene where Arthur lumbers down an empty hallway after being fired from his job. He bursts unexpectedly into a fit of laughter, only to abruptly stop as quickly as he’d began, suggesting he may have more control over his illness than he is letting on.
The root cause of this darkness appears to lie in Arthur’s innate desire to not only be respected by the society that continually rejects him, but to be noticed in some significant way; whether this means to be worshipped by an entourage of fans who scream his name or simply to belong somewhere, to be part of something bigger than himself is up for debate. The closest the viewer comes to learning what is really going on in Arthur’s mind is in the few scenes where we see him attend therapy sessions. Even then, aside from learning that he’s on seven different types of medication and the brief glimpse we get to see of his journal (interestingly his case worker seems to find nothing disturbing about its contents, despite the unsettling depictions of tied-up women and various people meeting their bloody ends that cover its pages) we are given minimal information to go on as to why Arthur is the way he is. One possible reason for this could be that it’s difficult to pin down exactly what disorder(s) Arthur has, though his case worker’s oversight and Arthur’s admission that he felt better while he was locked up in hospital seems to foreshadow the events to come.
One of the ways in which Arthur’s unreliability as a narrator becomes apparent are the ‘imagined’ scenes in the film. This is noticeable in the sequence where he is invited on-stage by Gotham’s famous talk-show host Murray Franklin. As Arthur is greeted by his idol and the audience cheers him on in adoration, it is clear that he is in a gleeful state of fulfilment; yet moments like this in Joker are few and far between (the only other obvious instance of this is the idyllic relationship he shares with his neighbour Sophie, one that is later revealed to be a product of his overly vivid imagination). While they appear to be suggestive of the kind of life Arthur envisions for himself if society would accept him for who he is, it is ultimately the unfulfillment of this vision that results in the violent blend of chaos and bloodshed that dominates Joker‘s latter half.
It is from the point where he loses his job that things really begin to fall to pieces for Arthur. Yet even at this point, perhaps the violence could have been avoided were it not for one pivotal scene in the film. In some parallel universe, after losing his livelihood, Arthur may well have gone back to his dilapidated apartment and made some decision that could have reverted his life back to the semi-bearable state it was in at the start of the film.
Instead, he boards a subway train – empty save for the presence of three drunken Wayne Enterprises employees harassing a woman in the same carriage. The scene initially follows the established pattern of what happens when Arthur finds himself in situations he doesn’t know how to respond to; he laughs. Yet, it doesn’t take long for Arthur to find himself the centre of unwanted (or wanted?) attention, and after the trio lose patience with their verbal torment of Arthur, they proceed to physically assault him instead. It’s a confrontation that initially looks as though it’ll pan out the same way as it has before, with Arthur once again trampled over by the society whose approval he craves so much.
Except then, as abruptly as he seemed to stop finding losing his job so amusing, it seems that even taking a beating has lost its funny side, as Arthur takes out the gun (the one given to him by an ex-colleague, and the reason behind his sacking in the first place), and opens fire. He kills two of the men flat-out, the shock on their faces as they are gunned down likely mirroring our own reaction to the unannounced tonal change of the scene and the visceral depiction of violence on display.
Arthur then follows through by pursuing and wounding the third man as the latter attempts to escape the slaughter. Here he is presented with a choice; the initial killings could be argued to be an act of self-defence after all, seeing as how he was being relentlessly beaten as part of an unprovoked attack. Yet, as the injured man uses what remains of his strength to try and drag himself across the station floor and Arthur walks over to him, hard-faced, weapon in hand, the audience knows what is going to happen next.
Sure enough, the last shot is fired, the man stops moving, and there is nothing in Arthur’s gaze to suggest any inkling of remorse. Instead, still adorned in his clown entertainer getup, Arthur reacts instinctively and flees the scene. But there is no doubt in the audience’s mind about the consequence of this brutal act; the seeds of the Joker’s birth have well and truly been sown.
Chaos ensues as Arthur’s actions aboard the subway are broadcast all over the city, with the likes of Thomas Wayne calling for his capture, all the while labelling the impoverished underclass a bunch of ‘clowns’ for their apparent envy directed towards those more successful than themselves. An almost self-fulfilling prophecy then occurs as crowds of clown-masked people, all dressed in Arthur’s image, proceed to march the city’s streets; they herald Arthur as some kind of symbol for his actions aboard the subway, and desire to hold Gotham’s rich to account for their neglect of those less fortunate than themselves, with particular vitriol aimed at Wayne. It is a class-based revolution of sorts, and on a surface level, one sparked by Wayne’s retaliatory comments.
More significantly however, it has been fuelled by the ever-growing disparity between the city’s richest and poorest members, whereby the result of the rich man’s blissful ignorance regarding the poor man’s worsening economic and social conditions has reached its breaking point. Arthur too has reached his own breaking point of sorts, though not in the way we might have expected, as a subsequent scene between him and his case worker illustrates. Far from being a nervous wreck as a consequence of his actions aboard the subway, he is instead entirely self-focused, and even takes relish in the attention he has received because of it; he tells his case worker that while he’d felt like he’d never even existed before, he does now as people are finally starting to notice him.
Ironically, said case worker once more fails to spot the warning signs of Arthur’s clear and dangerous desire for infamy. Rather than flag up or even acknowledge Arthur’s erratic behaviour she merely informs him that she can no longer see him anymore nor provide him with medication, all due to the city cutting funding for social services. In a scene of art imitating life, her affirmation to Arthur that ‘they don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur, and they really don’t give a shit about people like me either’ is poignant in that it reinforces just how damaging societal apathy can be to the individual when the safety net that has supported them is suddenly yanked out from beneath their feet.
This is but one instance of the chaos that is whipped up in Arthur’s life that pushes him over the edge. It’s bad enough to have lost a job that he loved, but to then be denied both his mood-stabilising drugs as well as a healthy outlet for him to release his pent-up emotions when he needed it most marks the beginning of the end for his grip on reality. The fact that Arthur then intercepts a letter written by his mother to Thomas Wayne in which it is insinuated that the billionaire is his biological father could be seen as the punchline to some twisted joke if his life were a comedy – except, despite Arthur’s assertion to the contrary, there is nothing remotely laughter-inducing about Joker‘s culminating scenes.
The fact that Arthur loses everything he once held dear is enough of a catalyst for what happens next, but when his comedy routine is ridiculed on live television by Murray Franklin, the same man Arthur had looked up to as both a role model and the father he never had is nothing short of tragic. Perhaps as part of some oedipal-inspired effort to replace one father figure with another, Arthur proceeds to confront Wayne, only to be not only rejected, but have his very existence invalidated by Wayne’s outright rejection of these allegations.
As such, the revelation of the mental and physical trauma Arthur endured as a child at the hands of one of his mother’s violent ex-partners is a horrific notion in itself, but the knowledge that his mother enabled the abuse irreparably destroys any chance of his self-redemption. To discover that the one person he’d loved unconditionally his entire life had betrayed him proves to be too much, and thus Penny’s fate is sealed; Arthur suffocates her as she lies helpless in her hospital bed in a scene that is perhaps even more disturbing than the reason behind its execution.
In short, one by one, Arthur loses the things in life that give him meaning, and the worst part of it is that despite his pleas for help, to Thomas Wayne, to his case worker, to practically anyone that will listen to him, the thoughtless juggernaut that is society continues to shudder on, none the wiser to the monster its just unleashed.
While the blood-filled scenes that ensue exhibit the newly self-christened Joker’s insatiable thirst for vengeance towards those that have wronged him, I don’t think it is necessarily the violence itself that is important. Rather it is the reasons behind Joker’s actions that make these scenes meaningful. From the almost casual way in which he releases the anger-fuelled emotions he’s suppressed for years to his twisted fulfilment of his life-long dream, the culminating scenes of Joker are captivating simply because, on some level, you cannot help but root for him.
In a less well crafted film, such a display would have completely alienated the viewer’s sympathy towards Joker. But the masterstroke of the film, the ‘ace in the hole’ as it were, lies not in Joker’s villainous acts, but in the way his humanity has been interwoven throughout the story. Like many of us, he has a dream that he aspires to fulfil; like many of us, he longs for an intimate relationship; like many of us, he deals with the repercussions of living in a society that sidelines its poorest members at any given opportunity; like many of us, he has fantasies about what he wants out of life. Even in situations where he acts and behaves in ways that defy societal notions of a common humanity and decency, it’s hard not to feel some sense of camaraderie with Joker, even if only within the sanctuary of our own minds.
Take the scene where Joker is invited onto Murray’s talk show, and how his half-hearted attempts to break the ice by telling jokes from his journal soon escalates into something so much more. Initiated by Joker’s lackadaisical confession of the killings he committed aboard the subway, and followed by his fiercely passionate critique of society, the tension rises to a fever-pitch level, and it does not relent until the scene’s heart-stopping (pun unintended) end.
Through barely-concealed hatred, Joker accuses Murray of being a terrible person for his mockery of him, and condemns the booing crowd by labelling them the kind of people who wilfully neglect people like him, and as a consequence have bought the riots occurring across Gotham city on themselves. This damning indictment on society is countered by Murray’s accusation of Joker of being full of ‘self-pity’, (mirroring Thomas Wayne’s earlier disparagement of the lower classes being nobody but ‘clowns’), a slight that causes Joker to snap, as if being called out for his wrongdoings by not one, but two father figures is more than he can bear.
Interestingly, Joker decries the suggestion that he himself is responsible for the riots, and goes as far as to cast doubt on his ability to lead a movement even if he wanted to. Indeed, the fact that its suggested he peacefully surrenders himself into police custody after his murder of Murray infers he was telling the truth about his apolitical stance. However, the chaos and bloodshed that Joker’s actions cause illustrate how the actions of one individual can have a disastrous impact on the collective unconscious – whether its perpetrator does this intentionally or not.
This hive mind effect is epitomised by Joker’s brief release from police custody when the car he is being transported in is intercepted by his new devotees. Briefly knocked unconscious, he is dragged out of the wreckage and laid across the damaged vehicle’s bonnet as the amassed crowd wait for him to come to, chanting all the while. Inevitably, Joker awakes and clambers to his feet; bruised, bloodied and disorientated, but still standing, he surveys the carnage around him. For a moment, he almost resembles his former self, and we half-expect him to become paralysed by laughter or perhaps even attempt to flee the scene of the crime altogether.
Instead, Joker looks nonchalantly down at his clown-masked followers, and despite having risen higher than ever before, despite having attained everything he wanted, he still cannot bring himself to smile – and so, in the vein of the stand-up comedian he once aspired to be, he decides to improvise. Using the tips of his fingers, he makes use of his injuries by drawing a blood-smeared smile across his face as his followers cheer him on. Only then does he begin to perform one of his slow-moving, swan-like dances, the kind that expresses his complete confidence and contentment in who he is.
Intriguingly, as much as this may suggest Joker’s endorsement of the symbol he has become – the man who stands up for Gotham’s downtrodden and its dispossessed – there is nothing in this scene,nor in the rest of the film, to indicate that this is actually the case. He does not verbally address his newfound followers at all; nor is it implied that he willingly resonates with these people who cheer him on in any perceivable way. Instead, whatever struggles Joker and these people may have in common seem irrelevant. This is due in part to Joker’s silence, but more importantly, its because the anonymity afforded by the crowd’s clown masks showcases a moment in Joker that is emblematic of how actions truly do speak louder than words. After all, Joker has finally taken centre-stage, fulfilling his former self’s life ambition and with it, any notion or pretence at being anything for other than which he is – the sheer embodiment of chaos.
In this way, perhaps Joker doesn’t just reflect the implications for a society that tramples over the lower classes at their own peril, but more importantly it highlights how chaos gives opportunists like Arthur Fleck the chance to crawl out of the woodwork and wreak havoc. Perhaps like the film itself, the issues regarding mental health and one’s socioeconomic status are far more nuanced than meets the eye, even in regard to our own ‘real life’ societal issues. The parallels between Arthur’s society and that of our own are unnervingly similar in some ways. Yet more significantly, it is our insight into Arthur’s mental deterioration and the devastating impact this has on his society that entices us to question ourselves as individuals. In particular it prompts us to question our own attitudes and behaviours towards those who are mentally afflicted, and whether each of us is doing enough to alleviate the suffering of others – if not for the benefit of the sufferers themselves, then surely for our own?
In this vein, it’s apt to end this review of Joker with a question Arthur asks his case worker in the film, a piece of dialogue that becomes more thought-provoking the more you replay it over in your mind:
‘Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?’
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here