“Smile and put on a happy face.”
Arthur Fleck repeats this mantra throughout the two-hour trance-like experience of the newest comic-book based blockbuster, Joker. From the first scene until the credits roll, director Todd Philips masterfully but relentlessly maintains a cold, dark world. It is unlikely the audience will be able to “smile and put on a happy face” until they are miles from the movie theater parking lot.
The audience follows Fleck, a thirty-something-year-old who suffers alone in a society that does not recognize or respond to his mental illness. His bouts of maniacal laughter are uncontrollable even with high doses of medication. These episodes thrust him into uncomfortable situations daily. Fleck experiences constant bullying and cruelty, as he plummets into despair.
His home-life provides no relief. Fleck cares for his delusional mother—who is also suffering from untreated mental illness—in a loving but somewhat disturbing manner. He is a victim of childhood abuse and has been failed by inadequate social services and health care. This combination of untreated mental illness and a complete lack of empathy from society turns troubled Arthur Fleck into the evil Joker. Fleck’s repeated attempts to create a sense of belonging and achieve human connections are denied, and he is left alone battling a crippling mental illness. Fleck falters when even his idol, talk show host Murray Franklin, mocks his failed comedy routine on primetime TV. Fleck is untethered from the world he once sought love and approval from, and Joker emerges.
In the end, Fleck finally embodies the evil we know as the Joker. He embarks on a murderous rampage without remorse, resigning any hope of experiencing love in this society. Fleck’s search for belonging ends, as he is laughed off the stage at an amateur comedy club.
“My life is nothing but a comedy,” Fleck says, freed from the need or desire for acceptance.
Does our increasingly violent society need this film right now? Telling the disturbing background story of a violent and deranged killer runs the risk of allowing viewers to empathize, or deify the character. In this era of increasing violence, is this responsible?
The answer to that question is yes. We need Joker right now. Not because it is impeccably directed, or because Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is so masterful. Not because the musical score alone puts the audience into a hypnotic state. We need Joker because it is the mirror we need to look at ourselves in right now.
Gotham is crumbling, and the people are angry. Cuts to social services leave many, like Fleck, without healthcare in an economy that functions only for the fortunate. When a co-worker gives Fleck a gun for self-defense, it is only a matter of time before he uses it. This combination of inadequate mental health care and access to guns is only part of the story Joker tells. The moral emptiness is the ugliest reflection in the mirror.
Joker is an attack on society's shallow and depraved state. It is not hard to find evidence of this in the world today. Pornography websites occupy three of the spots on the top fifteen list of most visited sites. Violent video games top the “most popular” charts, as they condition and desensitize the youth to brutality. Videos of children being bullied in school appear on social media daily. While this is not a cry for Puritanism, it is a wake-up call to the erosion of civility.
We need this film right now because, unlike most comic-based blockbusters, it is real. There is no magic, no special powers, no genetic mutations. There is only a man who lives in a society devoid of kindness, compassion, and love for each other. Beyond the lack of otherworldly elements, Joker is filled with hints of societal degradation seen outside the theater. The inadequate social services and polarized nation depicted in the fictional world is not too far from reality.
Critics of the film worry it is justifying violence, rationalizing murderous behavior, and running the risk of creating real-life Arthur Flecks. These critics are worried about the future without acknowledging the past, and the present. The world is full of would-be Arthur Flecks, and this film is a warning. It is a death-curdling scream to force us to stop and look around.
“Everybody is awful these days,” says Fleck, summing up his experience in life. The movie is filled with society’s missed opportunities to embrace Arthur Fleck. The man in constant search for belonging is consistently cast aside. Fleck is a vessel to explore the depths of despondency, taking the audience on a voyage of cruelty and neglect. While Joker is a story about Fleck’s evolution into a monster, it is more an admonition of mankind’s waning empathy.
The film is not a call to action. It merely shows the audience a petri dish where random violence grows. The same random violence that creates the all-too-familiar fear felt in schools, malls, and public areas today. This fear keeps the viewer engaged for the length of the film, and days after.
If we ignore and mistreat our fellow humans like Arthur Fleck, we create monsters like the Joker.
The last scene of the film seems reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. Joker dances through an insane asylum, bloodied from his last victim as Sinatra swoons the audience into the credits. The smash hit “That’s Life” reminds us that the world can be as ugly as Arthur Fleck sees it.
I said that’s life, and as funny as it may seem,
Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream.