Joker isn’t just a film about a man suffering from a mental illness; it is more or less about the ills of a society that has lost its faith in humanity. It is a glorious tragedy of a human being who loses sense of himself, because society failed him time and time again. The theme of the division between the rich and the poor is quite illusive; it is a dystopia of sorts, where the rich act like “saviours” declaring empty promises to “clean up” a society that has already descended into chaos—a society that has plummeted so deeply into an abyss of pandemonium that to salvage it seems futile. And amongst all this chaos emerges a man struggling between his sanity and the need to prove his worth; his salvation reposed in his desire to pursue comedy, which may be perceived as a paradox.
Arthur Fleck’s desire to pursue comedy (and to make people laugh) is paradoxical because he clearly verbalizes that he hasn’t been happy a single day in his entire life—a life filled with acute hardships: poverty, a plethora of mental illnesses, bullying and ridicule; lack of love/companionship (except for his mother, but I meant more so in the romantic sense); all the while trying to survive in a world that refuses to acknowledge his existence. His life is full of lacks and voids, his only salvation being the need to make people laugh—to be liked and appreciated for once in his life. One can’t help but wonder why a lugubrious man would even have the desire to pursue a career in stand-up comedy in the first place. It is indeed a mystery of sorts, or perhaps it is not a mystery at all. One thing is certain, however: his evolution to madness is not an aberration. It is a result of the lacks, voids, and dysphoria that consume him to his very core—entities that he tries to grapple with day in and day out, but keeps failing because he doesn’t fit society’s norms and expectations. And probably never will. While, one would assume that Arthur is “abnormal” in the society in which he dwelled, it was his sanity that was constantly at stake. In fact, one could perhaps argue that it wasn’t Arthur who was necessarily, or even organically “mad,” but it was society that drove him mad. As he says in the opening scene of the film, while sitting across from his social worker:
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
We also learn, soon enough in the film, that his mother, Penny Fleck, also suffered from a series of mental illnesses and was even hospitalized at one point. So, it is left to the viewers’ interpretation as to whether Arthur’s advancement towards madness and mayhem is due to genetics or social influence. Perhaps, a combination of both?
There is another scene in the film that I found particularly noteworthy; it is closer to the end of the film, where Arthur is invited to a talk show to discuss his comedy act. During the interview, he nonchalantly reveals to the talk show host (Murray) that he was the one who killed the three seemingly well-off men who worked on Wall Street. Upon asking why he did it, his response was this:
“Oh, why is everybody so upset about these guys? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me. I pass you every day and you don’t notice me! But these guys, what, because Thomas Wayne* went and cried about them on TV?”
(*Thomas Wayne is the very wealthy surgeon and owner of Wayne Enterprises; he is also the father of future Batman, Bruce Wayne. In “Joker,” he is trying to run for Mayor, and Arthur scoffs at him, because he sees him as just another arrogant, rich person who pretends to care about the poor and unfortunate, but really cares about and favours the rich and the wealthy.)
The most brilliant aspect of this film, besides Joaquin Phoenix’s spectacular acting and the virtually perfect cinematography, is that it is viewed solely from Arthur’s perspective. One, at times, wonders what facets of the story is real and what is merely a fantasy—an illusion—made up through Arthur’s mind. The whole film could perhaps be a fantasy. Or, perhaps not. It is totally left to the viewer’s interpretation. And, this is the beauty of autobiographical films. It is like reading a story written in the first person, in which the readers get an opportunity to delve as deeply as possible into the psyche of the author’s mind, until you, the reader, feel every single emotion that the author is experiencing. You almost become one with the author. You begin to feel emotions that are not necessarily your own. You empathize. You sympathize. You sob. You maybe even cry until you are completely spent. It may elicit emotions in you that you probably didn’t know you were capable of expressing. For some, the film may even serve as a reality check from the everyday privileges that they tend to take for granted.
There is so much stigma around mental illness that it is easy to simply brush it under the carpet, and pretend it does not exist. Yet, the fact of the matter is that it does exist. It is very real. And very few films, if any, have managed to depict it as fiercely as this film has. Indeed, the film deals with some abstruse issues about the reality and utter bleakness of the human condition. And, perhaps, it is this dark and distressing aspect of the film that may not appeal to many (especially those who are of the faint of heart); but, it is undoubtedly vital. So very vital that I am tempted to re-watch it.
My rating of the film: 10/10 👍