An origin story for one of the most successful franchises in movie history, Joker recently landed in cinemas with a high billing. Excitement for this film is particularly strong on the back of the most recent Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight movies, the third and final of which grossed over a billion dollars. So, does Joker live up to expectations? Does it do justice to the financial and critical success of its predecessors? While I may touch on these things indirectly, the main focus of this post will be on the perception of mental illness in the film.
If you’re hoping for the level of action found in The Dark Knight films, you’ll be disappointed until the final half hour of Joker. It opens with a scene of Arthur Fleck (who becomes the eponymous character by the end), a failing stand-up comedian and part time clown, in outbursts of strange, possibly manic laughter bordering on crying. You have to get used to this – many scenes include and invite the viewer to focus on this laugh, which seems to happen at inappropriate or unusual times. He laughs at things most people find unfunny. In one scene, as Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, sits at a table in a bar watching stand-up and taking notes, his laughter is inconsistent with the rest of the audience. He laughs in the gaps; in between jokes. On another occasion Fleck laughs uncontrollably when a lady on a bus chides him when he's caught pulling faces to entertain her daughter over the seat. Though the film also uses this to highlight Fleck’s outsiderness from the rest of society and attract speculation that he’s suffering from other mental health illnesses such as mania or depression (in which the laughter would be a deflection from the pain he carries everywhere within), this is based on an actual condition: Pseudobulbar affect; in which sufferers laugh without restraint or seemingly for unknown reasons, while also displaying extreme sadness at only slight occurrences. It’s a condition supposedly controllable by medication, which Fleck takes a lot of. Yet, when he comes off the pills later in the movie, he admits to feeling far happier than he ever did while on them. Other circumstances affect Fleck; looking after his mother, his lack of romantic relationships, and also the state of the city and the government.
Fleck is fed up of being at the wrong end of a system that cares only for those at the top. This is a key feature of the film and his character. In a speech by Thomas Wayne (yep, that’s Bruce’s father) – in his run for mayor – he appeals to the ‘people who have made something of their lives’ without considering the conditions of those who struggle massively to elevate themselves up the social hierarchy, such as Fleck. And we do get the impression that Fleck is trying. He gets up to work every day (until fired), looks after his mother ([*spoiler alert*] until she dies), and tries to smile and be happy ([*spoiler alert*] until he gets beaten up for no good reason one too many times and shoots three guys dead on the subway). We definitely have sympathy for Fleck. And I find the discovery of the origin of his more commonly seen name is relevant here: revered comedian and talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) makes a flippant reference to Fleck as a joker, in a derogatory way, after seeing some footage of him attempting live stand-up and not doing a very good job of making the audience laugh. Franklin doesn’t remember making the comment when the two meet after Fleck is invited onto Franklin’s show at a later date. Yet it soon becomes the name ringing through the Gotham city streets in the Batman films. This highlights Fleck’s heightened sensitivity to certain things his peers do or say; another common feature in persons suffering with depression. He adopts the name ironically, citing Franklin’s use of the word and how it was ‘not very nice’ to call him a joker. This is key, and it's something Fleck refers to many times over the course of the film. People are not very nice to one another. Of course, this is subjective, but its objectively presented in this movie through a series of random attacks on Fleck, as well as the way in which others react to one another (in one instance, a small shove on a busy subway train causes a full-scale brawl on the carriage). The viewer is asked to link this ungregarious general attitude of the people with a type of city politics that makes the rich richer and keeps the poorer civilians down; exemplified by the cutting of funding for social workers in the Department of Health (with whom Fleck meets regularly over the first half of the movie). Though set in fictional Gotham City, it’s possible the film is making a real reference to American urban areas, where a shrinking middle class over recent years has caused widening inequality all over the country. Fleck prioritises feeding his mother over himself. Phoenix, who is excellent in this film, lost a lot of weight for the role, and Fleck is barely seen anywhere near food during the film. For him, trying to be happy in the cold world his part of Gotham is presented as is near impossible. Until he takes action, Fleck is a deeply unhappy person.
So yes, the good majority of this film is quite steady build up; scenes of Fleck laughing, his reactions to certain events, smoking and contemplating, and dancing his languid, body-contorting sways. But this is necessary in building a character who is deeply unhappy in himself and with the system he finds himself in. Here in the UK we’re lucky to have a country with relatively good access to mental health services: doctors, counselling, student counselling, Samaritans, Nightline, Mind, Rethink, Young Minds … the list goes on. The film suggests that if Arthur Fleck would’ve felt cared for, if he would've had people around him who gave him their time, and had others looked out for his best interests, he would not have descended to become Joker. This is a film which can be interpreted in many ways, as well as being an interesting addition to the DC Comics film canon. For me it says three simple things: listen, try to understand, and be nice. Because it often does feel like we live in a cold world, but only people can make it friendlier.
Criticisms are mixed for this film, with The Guardian giving it 2/5 stars and Empire 5/5. An article I really liked which spoke about the movie and about PBA was this one:
Also, Charles Bramesco at The Guardian recommends this upcoming flick as a good alternative to Joker as a film that also looks into the psyche of an outcast or loner. Here’s a link to the trailer for Cuck: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpOWaT31wKY
As always, thanks for reading