By James Prescott
When Joker came out there was a lot of noise around Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, arguably one of the best acting performances of his career, and comments on cinematography, soundtrack and filmmaking behind the movie. It rightly won Oscars for best actor for Phoenix, and for best soundtrack, and could have won more.
Joker is billed as a comic book movie – but in truth, it’s more of a horror movie. It gave me insomnia and bad dreams, and many others who I know who’ve seen it and loved it, told me it was disturbing and a movie they’d only see once.
It was arguably one of the most terrifying movies I’ve seen, and there are two reasons for this.
The first is because the story, of a mentally ill man, abused as a child, forgotten by society, with no support from anyone around him, descending into insanity, violence, and murder is grounded in reality, and it’s truthful enough to make you wonder whether it could happen.
The second is, it exposes the darkest parts of ourselves – and there are moments where you can easily feel empathy with the principal character, his emotions, his anger, his pain…though never his actions.
The movie tells the story, Arthur Fleck. He’s a man who has been institutionalized before, he’s on multiple medications for mental illness, and sees a therapist regularly. He lives with his mentally ill mother and has hallucinations and delusions. He has a condition that makes him laugh under stress or anxiety. He has a lot of internalized anger and aggression which he keeps buried inside. But then this support is taken away, he loses his job, and he’s beaten up multiple times. The world forgets him and crushes him. The second time he is beaten up in clown make up, by three rich, establishment men, he turns a gun on them and kills them all in cold blood.
This sparks an uprising by against the rich and powerful, and the clown mask becomes a symbol of resistance against the establishment, which only boosts Arthur’s sense of self-importance.
And in that moment something is released in him. He descends further into his own delusions and his own dark side. The final tipping moment is the moment he finds out the truth his mother hid from him about his childhood abuse by her and his stepfather. He states publicly the whole of his life as a joke and loses all sense of both morality or reality. He brutally murders his mother and a work colleague who had treated him poorly. He appears on a TV show and murders the presenter live on TV.
And he sees it all as a joke. He doesn’t care about getting caught, he sees his life and everyone else’s as a joke and takes pleasure in seeing people suffer. He is the center of the universe, lacking morals, ethics, or compassion. In the last scene, he’s in an institution – and we’re never sure how much of the story is true, or how much is his own delusion.
The way the story is told, in the time and culture of the early ’80s when the movie is set, there’s o question this could happen to someone in the right circumstances. Someone with mental illness who has been abused and traumatized as a child doesn’t get the support they need and feels rejected by and anger towards the world who’s rejected them could easily become a psychopathic killer.
But the scariest thing is, there are parts of the movie where you empathize with Arthur. His anger at being rejected by the world due to his condition. The bitterness he feels when he finds out about how his mother lied to him and about the abuse he suffered. And the frustration he feels towards a TV host who only brought him on his show to make fun of him.
For most of us, we might feel this anger, but with our basic morality, ethics, values, and sense of decency would stop us from acting in the way Arthur does. But there is something in us which feels for Arthur when he angrily shouts
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash? You get what you deserve”
As soon as he says this he shoots his interviewer in the face.
Although none of us would ever act in such a violent, psychopathic, evil way, we can feel the anger at his feeling rejected and forgotten by the world.
And this is what scares us. Joker connects us with the darkness in ourselves. It makes us wonder what could happen if the correct toxic mix of circumstances happened to us or someone we love.
Arthur sees his own story as a comedy, not a tragedy, but in truth, it is a tragedy. It’s a toxic mix of circumstances happening to a man with a number of mental illnesses and a traumatic background, with tragic consequences.
Joker is a warning of what happens if or when we don’t take mental illness and trauma seriously, and when we act in a cruel, hurtful and dismissive way, culturally and individually, towards those who feel they have no stake in society, no value, no worth, no opportunity. And it’s also a warning to pay attention to the darkness and pain in ourselves and get support and guidance if we need it.
As a community, we can ensure stories like Joker don’t happen in reality if we do better work on ourselves, and in supporting and encouraging others. For filmmakers, we need to be naming more films that challenge us to look at ourselves, which confront issues like mental health and trauma and tell stories that can inspire us all to do better.