Joker - A cautionary tale ?
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Joker pulled a lot of attention advertising Joaquin Phoenix as its lead. An indie film actor for a villain origin film. It has surprised more than one DC fans. But it's not the last of Joker's controversies.
The week of its release, Joker sparked many controversies from being seen as condoning violence, terrorism and violence against women to the argument that is always associated with violent video games - that the film is an enticement to violence and many critics worry that the film would provoke a rise of violence with what is seen as a glorifying violence. Too violent for some, a masterpiece for others - extreme opposition seem to characterize the film as much as its audience reaction. Do people think the audience can not see the difference between reality and fiction ? Is the film saying something so accurate about our society that people are afraid the audience would pick up on it ? Did film executives realise they didn't do the entertaining and brainless film they thought they did ?
Arthur Fleck is a man with a condition making him go into laughter at any moment and without any reason. He is trying to survive and take care of his mother by doing clown gigs and dreaming of being a stand up comedian. As the centre helping him with his mental health closes, Arthur is left alone. He ends up being beat up by various groups of boys and men. Helpless at first, he is given a gun. As a group of men picks up on him, he realises the power he has holding the gun and making his suffering stop. From there, he falls into a spiral of crime leading him to become the Joker.
What is really interesting here is that Arthur Fleck tries to improve his life. He asks for help to his therapist, asks for different medication, tries to be heard but no one listens. As the centre closes, he is left alone and let down by a society that does not care about the weakest. He is rejected by everyone because of his disease and picked on for it. He succumbs to violence to first protect himself and then as a revenge on to everyone who hurt him. He notices that the next day everyone is talking about that clown. He feels like he exists for the first time in his life and that people notice him. The choice of Joaquin Phoenix to play this fragile, unstable man is a telling choice. This is not the story of a villain. It is before anything else the story of a man, a complex man, a bad man but a human being. Used to dark, tortured characters, Phoenix brings a depth to Arthur Fleck that was never seen before.
It can be seen as a cry for new things, a cry for considering mental health properly. In the film the facility he is at closes and nothing is offered to him for further treatment. It shows social security problems in the US. Or anywhere else for that matter. In France, most of the practicians practice « honoraires » meaning that not everyone can afford it and free centers have a very long waiting list. In England, it takes a long time to get someone. Mental health is not seen as important to heal and treat as a broken bone but it has the same consequences for people who suffer from it. Most people will experience depression, most of them will not be diagnosed and therefore not treated. People are not encouraged to talk about it, to get help buyt to keep it behind closed doors. Joker shows what happens when you are isolated, can’t find help and try to do whatever, to survive. People are scared of how it could influence people and create violence, maybe we can look at this film, look at ourselves and find a way to prevent it. The film by showing how it happens gives many clues on how to prevent it. It does not condone the violent behavior. Nor is Arthur a violent person. Circumstances have played a role, society has too. Too often we minimize it. Too often, we say ourselves that if so and so didn’t make it it is because they did not try hard enough. Maybe it is time to realize that not everyone starts in life equal and to get deeper and more meaningful initiatives.
In France the film was a huge success passing the 5 million mark. In a country that has known 52 Saturdays of strikes, where people feel like the government does not listen to them and only protects the rich, this film has been a « catalyzer » of the situation. Weeks before the RATP strike, it is interesting to note that in a way people have been reduced to use radical methods to make the powerful notice and care.
In this way, Joker finds an echo in so many people. The film does not say it is right to do what he does, it shows how he succumbs to murder and chaos. It can be a cautionary tale for people, for societies and governments. Is it a warning saying that we need to recenter around each other, find solidarity again and stop being so individualistic ? Is it what would happen to our societies if it’s a « every man for himself » kind of thinking ? Without wanting or planning it, the film touched what our world is going through. This is why I am saying the Warner didn’t realize the film they made was not what they thought it is. What they show of the world can also apply to film, they are part of a system, thriving on a system, that the film is fighting against.
Many critics are afraid of how it will sprung violence, then it might be a good idea to make sure it doesn’t and start changing the world. What this film shows is that we can not go on like that forever. The audience response it received should make all of us think about how powerful films are. No matter the artistic value, the quality, the critics, some films capture the audience. We should look at them and listen to what they have to say about the world, about us and learn from it. Film has power - power we should use for the better.