The new Joker movie has caused quite a stir in the weeks surrounding its release. The film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character, takes place in the 1970s and follows a man named Arthur Fleck as he descends into madness. Joker offers thought-provoking commentary on a variety of social issues that plague our society even today.
The film opens on Arthur as he prepares for his job of the day. He works as a clown for hire, performing at small gigs across Gotham in order to support himself and his sick mother, Penny. He also suffers from severe mental disorders that are never explicitly explained but it is established early on that he is prone to delusions. Another aspect of his disease causes him to laugh uncontrollably and, unfortunately, at the worst possible time. Arthur is repeatedly and brutally beaten until he commits triple homicide on a train. This killing sparks protests and riots around the city and is arguably the catalyst for Fleck’s transformation into the Joker.
The three men that Arthur killed were wealthy Wall Street types which worked in his favor. The theme of class warfare plays out in this scene as well as many after which show a rising tension between the lower classes of Gotham and those like Thomas Wayne and other members of the elite. Many characters expressed disdain for the rich, even going as far as to imply that the killer is a vigilante of sorts and was in the right. Many films have taken on class warfare before but never have I seen it presented so brutally honest yet morally challenging. If we explore this theme deeper, it is not simply a question of right or wrong. Instead, this situation makes one examine the reality of poverty, desperation, and see that it was more than just a crazed act. While the actual act in the film is most certainly in that category, the sentiments which it represents provide an interesting look into real-world consequences of greed and domination of the elite.
Another theme that was explored in-depth is mental illness and specifically the institutional minimization of the problem. This has direct implications on the current problems facing our mental healthcare system today. Arthur is seen in a therapist’s office throughout the film for his various problems yet, it is clear that no progress was made and no progress will ever be made. Because of his mental illness and the stigma surrounding it, he is ostracized by nearly everyone he meets. Funding for social services gets cut halfway through the movie, leaving Arthur without any network, even if that network was in serious need of reform as it lacked the basic knowledge or materials to help. The idea that one can just prescribe medicine and the problem of mental illness will disappear is mentioned throughout the film as well. In all, Joker tackles many modern problems in the mental healthcare system including a societal misunderstanding of the problem which results in sometimes excessive medication and ineffective interventions such as therapy, a lack of funding not only for research but for social programs, and the general attitude around mental illness that leads to ostracization and backlash against those that are suffering from one or many mental illnesses.
Of course, one cannot discuss this movie without addressing the backlash it received, even before its release. Many believed it would inspire those that may become mass shooters. The idea is that these people, feeling outcast from society, would relate to Arthur and see it as justification for their own unspeakable actions. Admittedly, I somewhat understood this criticism both before and after seeing the film. While there are a couple of scenes that seemingly glorify the Joker and his actions, there are far more that show the brutal truth behind these actions and their consequences. The film is intended to make the viewer violently uncomfortable yet it works. It’s incredibly compelling in its plot as well as its implications. However, while I can separate art from reality, I understand the concern that others perhaps cannot and in that respect, I see the call for increased security. The Aurora, Colorado tragedy still invokes fear for many, including myself and therefore, I see the concern.
That being said, I do not think this movie should be restricted. Aside from providing intriguing commentary on the state of society, it was one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever seen. The cinematography, editing, and everything involved in creating its aesthetic were masterfully done. From turning a simple set of stairs in the Bronx into a metaphor for solitude, then freedom, to the emphasis on colors and the fine-tuning done to each scene’s color scheme, there was nothing I did not like in terms of the visuals. The movie is, however, incredibly graphic and violent in some scenes so I would stay away if you cannot handle that. But, if one can make it through those scenes, I think the story is compelling and is a great watch for anyone looking to be psychologically and morally challenged.