(Warning - Contains Spoilers)
The new Joker movie is not for the faint of heart. It is disturbing, raw, and incredibly powerful. From a cinematic point of view, the film is incredible. The grit of Gotham got between my teeth as I watched. The period film, circa 1981, feels like the early eighties with the colors, furniture, and other settings placing you in the movie. Juaquin Phoenix delivers the best acting performance I’ve ever seen. Every time he is on the screen, you are drawn to his character. He is like watching a traffic accident in slow motion, wishing it would end, but unable to look away. The subtle, and not so subtle way he contorts his face, body, and voice is nothing short of masterful. One of the most potent lines in the film he delivers while sitting on a couch. He appears as a shell of a human, covered in self-loathing and pain after finding out he is adopted and his mother is clinically insane. His back is twisted into a hump, and his head is so low it appears to be coming out of his chest. When asked why he is in his neighbor’s (Sophie) apartment, who he has fantasized a relationship with, he replies in a low and terrifying voice. “I had a very bad day.” You feel the fear his neighbor has for herself and her little girl. Phoenix’s Joker makes Heath Ledger’s incredible version look like a campy, comic book farce.
This movie isn’t a simple exploration into a Batman villain. This film is watching the slow descent from mental illness to madness, from broken to shattered, from pain to evil.
In previous superhero/supervillain films, explorations into the origins of the character give a nod or a cursory understanding of why someone might slip into madness. Earlier Joker films show how a vat of chemicals transformed a bad guy, gangster type, into a make-up wearing madman. While I’ve never been baptized into a cesspool of toxic contaminants, it never truly explains the motivation behind the madness.
This rendition begins in a very different place. An adopted boy, with a mentally ill mother, gets abused and neglected in terrible ways by her and her boyfriend. These details don’t come out in the film right away but unfold in guttural and palpable fashion. Trying to cope with the abuse and neglect, in a fascinating and horrid irony, Arthur develops a condition that causes him to laugh when experiencing intense emotion. Phoenix delivers this utterance in exquisite fashion. It looks and sounds like laughter, pain, crying, and loathing all at once. It is hard to watch because you can’t tell which is which even when the context dictates a typical response. Nothing is ordinary.
His mother calls him “Happy” because she believes Phoenix has a purpose.
“I was put here to spread joy and laughter,” Arthur Fleck states. Because of this belief and likely, because he is unable to hold down any other type of job, Arthur works for a company that hires out clowns for different occasions. Fleck does his work with joy and puts everything he has into it. He brings a strange dignity to the role as who he is and what he does come together in a strangely meaningful expression. Despite his best efforts, even this simple work goes terribly wrong. He gets assaulted by a group of teens and blamed for the incident.
The plot helps you develop sympathy for the Joker in surprising ways. It isn’t difficult to see why he chooses what he chooses. His counselor/therapist/psychiatrist has little to no effect. She states he is on seven different medications when he asks for an increase in dosage. He says he “just doesn’t want to feel so bad anymore.” She informs him that the system doesn’t care about him, or her, and because of cutbacks, she can’t see him anymore. He will have no access to his medication. This obvious nod toward our current medical system is also a terrible foreshadowing about how unhinged things are going to get.
The constant misunderstandings, the not so light-hearted ribbing he gets from him fellow clowns, the mistreatment he experiences creates a genuinely pathetic and painful life. There is no way to avoid sympathy for Arthur. This in no way justifies his behavior; it merely explains it in a way that makes sense.
Instead of a vat dive into toxic chemicals, you find slippage, a gradual decline into the Joker. It makes his transformation that much more believable and terrifying. As my son said after the film, “That could be anyone.”
Maybe that’s why people are so disturbed.
The film has garnered a massive amount of media attention. It has already gained traction for numerous awards but also many warnings as the film provokes fear in many directions.
In Aurora Colorado, the theater where a mass shooting took place during a showing of the Dark Knight (Batman film with Heath Ledger’s Joker), will not show the movie. Also, many theaters are providing extra security due to fears it will insight violence.
Is it art imitating life or that life imitating art? I am not sure in every case, but for the Joker movie, I believe that art is imitating life. Sadly, the film depicts what does or might actually happen as someone slowly slips from reality to insanity. Far from making Arthur a hero, despite how crowds in the movie respond, the film depicts what makes a villain. In this case, it is brokenness upon brokenness. The ‘rise’ of the Joker occurs in the fertile soil of many broken aspects in our society.
The adoption process betrayed Arthur. A mentally unstable woman can adopt a child. This scenario should never happen, but it does. The health care system lets him down. His therapy doesn’t help, the meds aren’t working, and ultimately, he gets cast out as cutbacks occur. The work he chooses thinks of him as an object, not caring about what happens to him. The society is put on notice as he declares, “I could die on the sidewalk, and no one would notice.” He wants to matter, but as a comic, he isn’t funny. People care about him, but he is weird, awkward, and his ‘friends’ appear to be ill-equipped to show him in any meaningful way that he counts. Attempts to do the right thing get met with downright resistance and eventual firing. On the bus, he makes a child happy by making clown faces, but the mother insists he is disturbing her child. At the children’s hospital, a gun, given to him by a co-worker after he hears of the beating he took, falls from his pants in front of the children and hospital workers. Nothing goes right for Arthur Fleck. Nothing.
In the backdrop, the cries against the rich are many and loud. Signs that say ‘Resist’ are everywhere as the trash piles up in Gotham due to a strike by the sanitation workers. The iconic symbol of the wealthy elite is Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s dad. Fleck’s mom worked for him but was fired because she fixated on him and believed Arthur was their love child. Thomas Wayne is a jerk. He doesn’t appear to care at all for Gotham the way previous Wayne depictions have shown. In fact, in one scene where Fleck approaches him about being his father, Wayne tells him his mother was crazy and that he was adopted. He punches Arthur in the face and tells him to stay away from his kid, leaving Fleck bleeding in the bathroom.
Rejection. Shame. Defeat. Loathing. Brokenness. Betrayal. Abandonment. Mental illness. These are the ingredients to the cocktail that creates the Joker.
Can we blame the culture? Is it easy for us to point to the gaps in our society and how people slip through them? It sure is. This film will provide fodder for any number of instances where people can justify their pain, anger, and even violence toward an unjust society. You can argue against the rich, the medical system, the injustices for the poor, or the mentally ill. Pick your offense. What choice does someone like Arthur Fleck have? When people feel powerless, what do we expect? However, there is a massive difference between explanation and justification. In depicting the rise of the Joker, the film offers an account, or perhaps a reason for the madness. But, just because we can connect the dots, doesn’t mean the picture is reasonable.
Fleck’s behavior is deranged and violent. Why some people turn to this behavior while others do not, we may never know. What we are observing in the Joker is a disturbing and dark reality.
We produce Jokers.
This truth makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like to look in the mirror this way, but we must do so. Unless we face this reality in meaningful ways, we will continue to replicate the Joker.
Before you think I am laying this at the feet of our culture, please hear me out. The Joker is the outlier. We are watching a film about a small percentage, not the whole. What we typically produce looks nothing like the Joker. We produce fairly rational, civilized, reasonable people who try to do their best for themselves and others. Once in a while, we create something far better. Once in a while, we produce something far worse, and this movie is about the Joker, not Batman.
Our culture is becoming increasingly polarized. We do not have a great enemy from without (think of Communism from the 1940s–90s), so we have been devouring ourselves from within.
There is a cry against the rich; the top 1%. The wealthy don’t know us, and they don’t care about us. They are the enemy. They are the Other. This mantra continues today despite the fact we are wealthier now than at any time in history. The average American is in the top 1% globally, so what’s really going on? The cry against the rich could be that we don’t have as much as they do, and we don’t like it. It also presupposes that the rich do not have the same problems as the rest of us. They don’t suffer family issues, mental illness, or injustice. In fact, many of those who cry out against the rich treat them like they aren’t human – the very same treatment they object to.
Wealth accumulation and distribution is an important topic, but initiating chaos or even anarchy to combat it doesn’t solve the problem.
The need to bring remedies to the health system is real. How we treat the poor and the mentally ill must be addressed. Reasonable access to medication and treatment is a basic human need. We must do better at this. However, that doesn’t mean it’s ok to incite violence to get it. The ends don’t justify the means.
We have, for some time, diminished the voices of the marginalized and others. Many in our society feel powerless, and when people feel powerless, they work for control or fall to complete despair. It only makes sense. But to gain power or a voice at the table, shouting down others is not a way forward, it only furthers the problem. In this case, only the loudest, most disenfranchised, offended, or violent party gets heard. You can’t fight objectification with objectification. That is how the Joker comes to power. But even in this, there is hope.
In his deep need for acceptance and identity, the Joker reveals glimpses of humanity. After violently killing one of his co-workers with scissors, Arthur allows another to go free. This co-worker happens to be a dwarf (who may very well know what it is like to be disenfranchised) to whom Fleck says, “I’m not going to hurt you. You were the only one who was nice to me.” In another scene, described above, Arthur and his neighbor talk in her apartment. The Joker sits on her couch, after discovering much of his life is built upon a lie. He is combustible, and the scene is terrifying. Sophie has a child, she is alone, and she is vulnerable. But, she does something brilliant and inherently human. She gives him an identity. “I know you. You’re Arthur, right?” She shows him she sees him. Sophie names him, giving him humanity instead of making him an object. The next scene is Arthur in his apartment, crying/laughing, without having harmed either of his neighbors.
In these slivers of humanity and glimpses of hope, we see a way forward. Maybe the Joker gives us an answer to some of the worst our society has to offer.
It’s simple to point fingers and take up arms for a cause. Punching people who deserve it or causing emotional pain for those who hurt us is the lowest hanging fruit of humanity. You can see it on the playground or maybe now on Twitter. You hurt me; I hurt you. You hurt me a lot; I hurt you worse. You call me a name; I call you one as well. On and on it goes. No one escapes pain, and no one comes out of this world unscathed. Pain is inevitable; how we respond isn’t.
Bringing people into your pain never solves theirs. Sophie brilliantly spoke Arthur’s name, and we need to do the same for each other. Honoring the dignity of our enemies is the only way we are going to bring healing in our society and limit the amount of Joker’s we produce. Every single human being matters. Everyone. We each have unique contributions we can make to the lives around us or society as a whole. Acknowledging the dignity of anyone who has been systemically or personally denigrated, by choice or birth, is something we must do. We can and must change.
After watching the Joker movie, I am more motivated than ever. Not because I am afraid, but because my heart breaks for my fellow man. My heart aches for the disenfranchised and for those who scream because they feel unheard. It breaks for those caught up in systems that let them down and for those who feel like they are powerless. Maybe after watching the movie (should you choose to do so – R rated for good reason), your heart will soften as well. Listening to someone about how their dignity has been violated is a way forward. Honoring the dignity they possess, even when then they can’t see it themselves, is a way forward. Honoring the dignity we possess ourselves is a way forward. Recognizing our dignity helps us to acknowledge it in others. Dignity isn’t a privilege; it is intrinsic to the human condition. Dignity is inherent in the rich, poor, black, white, male, female, powerful and powerless, and whatever may be in between. Not paying attention to it furthers the problems we have and produces more Jokers than Bruce Waynes.
Some questions to consider…
Who do you know that needs having their dignity validated? What role can you play in doing so? What if it is you? What are some ways you can validate someone’s dignity? Where can you go, or who can you talk to that will validate your humanity and call you by name?