When I saw Joker at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival at the beginning of September, it took me weeks to digest the effect of this film upon my own consciousness as well as the possible effects it will have on our society and culture. The brilliancy with which Joaquin Phoenix delivers this darkest of demented characters is both awe-inspiring and disturbing. Just as the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Phoenix portrays a psychologically disturbed Joker who seeks revenge upon a society that rejects him. However, in Joker that story line develops in blood-curdling details. While based on the character by DC comics, the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, and directed by Todd Phillips, proves to be on another realm than all other comic book stories. It is not a film for children like the others, hence it is rated R. It does delve deep into the possible reasons why an already mentally disturbed person reacts violently, though a bit hard to digest visually in our gun-crazed culture of mass shootings.
Phoenix plays the part of Arthur Fleck who works by day as a clown that brings laughter to people at special occasions and seeks out stand-up comic jobs at night. His colleagues at the clown agency, because of his slow intelligence and demented humor, roundly mock him. His habit of uncontrolled laughter comes from a neurological condition for which he sees a counselor provided by the city’s social services. He says his mother nicknamed him “Happy” when a child because of this condition, and was told that he was, “put here to spread joy and laughter.”
When his clown colleagues trick him and he loses his job he rides the Gotham subway at night. The subway car is empty except for Arthur and three young intoxicated men from Wayne Enterprises who mock him and brutally insult him. Arthur lashes out with astounding violence by killing all three men. Soon after the word was out and wanted notices were out for the clown of the subway murders.
Film as a reflection of society is poignantly referenced in this movie. How do we treat those who struggle with mental illness? Are they recognized as human beings in need of love, acceptance, and care? Sadly, this film shows what too often happens.
Arthur began to feel important after this incident since he said he felt invisible until that moment. He was so desperately longing to be recognized as a human person but was denied that by everyone he encountered. He was ridiculed for his mental disability showing how society fear mental illness and fails to love those who suffer from it. He discovers a letter by his mother Penny to Thomas Wayne saying that Arthur is his son. He berates his mother for hiding the truth and goes to see Wayne. When he corners him Wayne tells him that Penny is mentally ill. Arthur steals his mother’s hospital files and discovers that Penny really adopted him and was abused by his mother’s boyfriend. Distraught he wreaks havoc on his mother and anyone who gets in his way.
Arthur says that he has failed at everything, even when he is brought onto the Murray Franklin show in a mocking way for his failed stand-up attempt. He seeks help after but finds out that funding for his medical care and mental help services has been cut. Arthur tells the therapist, “My whole life I didn’t even know if I really existed, but I do.” When she tells him she cannot help him any further, she says, “They don’t care about people like you, Arthur. They don’t care about me either.” This is a mocking commentary on our current social situation that discards the poor and mentally unstable without real medical care.
When Arthur returns to the Murray Franklin show he takes revenge for being ridiculed and insulted on national television. He goes on a vicious, bloody, violent rampage as if the years of pent up disregard and mockery blow up like a volcano. This is disturbing to watch. It’s especially disturbing considering the reality of mass shootings that happen regularly in our country, often by similar mentally unstable and bullied individuals.
Though the film shows the origin of evil in a psychologically disturbed character, that state of the soul is open fodder for the Evil One to insinuate that they follow that course of violence. In one sense, it shows the origin of evil in an individual who by one’s choice and/or by no fault of one’s own is groomed into emotional and psychological torture. A person cannot live without love. Without love hate takes over. The darkness engulfs Arthur and evil is unleashed. He calls himself the “Joker” and dances on the crashed car on the street with many others with clown faces rampaging the city of Gotham. Evil is unleashed and it doesn’t seem like there is any glimmer of hope. Only, we know that Thomas Wayne’s son, Bruce, even though just a boy, will rise up just when the city of Gotham is at its worse. We only know that because of the DC Comics, not from this story. It begins dark and it ends dark. It is after all, the origin of Joker, the origin of evil in a demented soul.
This film is disturbing in our culture of mass shootings. Some movie theaters cancelled screenings because of credible threats of perhaps copycats of the Joker. Evil unleashes more evil. Yet, the movie is telling of how we as a society do or do not care for those who struggle with mental illness, abuse, and bullying. Do we care enough for those who seem withdrawn and unloved? It's a call to reach out...before it's too late.