Todd Phillips’ hugely successful movie Joker has been a topic of extensive debate and controversy since its release in 2019. It has drawn attention not only for its artistic brilliance, especially Joaquin Phoenix’s flawless acting and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score, but also for its sympathetic portrayal of a character traditionally recognized as a supervillain in the DC Universe.
In this origin story, the protagonist Arthur Fleck is presented not so much as a psychopathic monster but as a powerless victim of systemic oppression. The trajectory of his life seems to indicate that he was almost destined to travel down the path of violence and become the Joker. The movie has drawn criticism for its potential to inspire people in similar real life situations to emulate Joker’s behaviour, and perhaps be enabled to turn to violence as an answer to their problems.
There is no doubt that, as with all powerful art, different people will take away different things from this movie (although one would hope that no one will take it as far as the film’s harshest critics fear). But what makes Joker stand out is its hyperrealism, and the urgency with which it demands that we turn our attention to issues of real, grave and immediate consequence. It is not a movie about theoretical ideas and events, but about actual human experience in our present world (even though it is set in the ’80s). It calls out wrongs that we tend to comfortably ignore, and indicts us for the havoc that our privileged silence wreaks.
It has arguably become commonplace for art to open up conversations about mental health, but Joker carries this conversation into a deeper, more uncomfortable space than you’d expect. It addresses the fundamental problem of how we approach the topic of mental illness. Arthur Fleck writes in his journal, “the worst part of having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” We talk about mental illness and appear to acknowledge it, but our conversations about mental illness, more often than not, are sanitized, shying away from the dark and uncomfortable realities of what people often experience in their hidden isolation.
Arthur Fleck’s existence is defined by layer upon layer of masks. At the core, there is his personal history of childhood trauma, which he himself can never reliably gain access to. Masking that is the abusive early conditioning that demands that he always put on a happy face. His day job as a clown with a painted face is yet another powerful mask, that is later on in the movie further masked by a plastic clown mask, the symbol of public protest and resistance in Gotham. That final mask, which appears to have its origin in Arthur Fleck’s own actions, has in fact acquired a life and journey of its own and engulfed his world, growing far more powerful than either Arthur or Gotham could have anticipated.
The journey from being Arthur Fleck to becoming the Joker has been labelled by many as his “downward spiral”, his “descent into madness”, or other such descriptions that indicate a complete stripping away of Joker’s ability to reason or direct his own life by the time his transformation is complete. The way I see it, though, the end of this journey is not Joker’s final defeat, it is really not about him succumbing to his base instincts when all else has failed. On the contrary, I see this journey as his rise to power, his active and conscious stripping away of the many masks that he previously wore, finally revealing not only what was within him, but also revealing the many masks that protected the privileged and powerful men of Gotham city. Arthur’s deepest desire was to be seen, and on his way to being seen, he leaves without excuse those who refuse to see either themselves or others.
Joker is a dark and gritty movie which people may love or hate, but it will make an impact. Intellectually and artistically, the movie is a masterpiece. The portrayal of a subject as stigmatized as acute mental illness is sensitively and intricately handled, and overall the movie is worth multiple viewings.