There’s a lot of talk around the new Todd Philip’s Joker movie. Mainly around the incredible performance by Joaquin Phoenix. When the script was being written, the director and studio only had one actor in mind to play the role; and they made the right choice. Many have called it a masterpiece and that the role will go down in history. It truly shows what comic book characters are capable of becoming on the big screen when giving freedom to the creators. Outside of the reference material, Joker has powerful messages about mental illness, fitting into society, and the consequences of messing with the wrong problem. The story of Arthur Phleck is violent and sad but ultimately one of acceptance. He starts the movie ashamed of his problems and struggling to find happiness. And through a series of tragic events realizes that he can be accepted and happy once he leans into the laughter, violence, and madness.
Lost Within Depression
The first scene the audience is shown of Arthur, he is laughing in his state funded therapist’s office. However he is also in anguish, hurt and crying in-between the laughs. Arthur is trying hard to restrain himself. We find out later there is a chemical imbalance in his brain that causes him to lose control of that body function. We see through most of the film how he hates this feeling; this is a sad person living a sad life full of depression. The worst part of this intro is how the character is actually a good person, and the events that follow and his environment do not foster that morality.
Arthur lives alone with his mother, a woman that constantly ignores or insults him. His place of employment is full of people that have no respect or compassion. Although his life is miserable, Arthur really tires to bring joy to the world around him, which is harder for him than it should be. The character doesn’t know how to function in society. There is a scene that highlights this perfectly. When Arthur goes to a comedy club, the comedian on stage is telling a joke and while the audience laughs, he almost looks confused. When he tries to laugh, no one else is. His journal is full of notes on how people around him function and what they find funny. Although Arthur does have extreme mental issues, his character also reflects how a lot of citizens felt in the similar time period.
The 1970’s were a rough time for a lot of people in major cities. There were many civil rights movements, not just race related but people of all lives demanding to be treated… well like people. The garbage strikes are based off of real sanitation worker strikes that happened in Memphis. When people are treated like filth, they harbour hatred and resentment to those who are not. Add rich men on television talking about the answer, that living as they do is the only way to happiness. Arthur is a consequence of that world. A man with mental and chemical imbalances surrounded by those which vocally hate him for being different.
Peeling Away The Illusion
The second time Arthur is attacked, he kills his attackers. Technically, the first two deaths were committed in self defense. There are obviously other factors, like the illegal gun, but he only killed them to defend himself from being beaten to death. Even hunting down and killing the third man could be seen as a survival reaction (kill the witness) that a normal person could do. However for a man like Arthur, it awaked something inside of him. He is a character that feels nothing but pain and sadness; for the first time in the film he feels… something else.
The second act is not easy to watch. Arthur experiences several events that, even individually, would destroy the psyche of anyone who had a full grasp on their sanity. He discovers Thomas Wayne is his father, then to discover that isn’t true and has a painful rejection. His other father figure, Murray Franklin, publicly humiliates him. He was fired from his clown job, the only thing that allowed him to bring joy to others. His state funded therapist, who really never cared about him to begin with, is shut down. His mother is hospitalized, and although she is terrible to him, she is the only other person he has contact with (other than Sophie, but we will get to that later.) The hardest blow is the discovery of his past. Arthur finds out he is adopted and that his mother physically abused him to an extreme degree. Memories he had suppressed for obvious reasons come rushing back causing him to crumble and turn to his girlfriend.
Only…. Sophie isn’t real. Not the way he thought at least. It isn’t the discovery of Sophie not being his girlfriend that breaks him, it’s that he didn’t even realize it. The single comfort he thought he had in his life is gone, it never even existed. He has no friends, no family, no lover, nor anything to really hold onto in life. The cops are closing in on him about the murders of the three men in the train. Three men that are praised and mourned publically by the wealthy while he was simply defending himself as they beat him after harassing a woman. The world doesn’t make sense to Arthur, but he does have one thing. The rest of the city is turning into clowns.
Embracing The Smile
When Arthur is at absolute rock bottom, he gets a phone call from the Murray Franklin show. This is the beginning of the swing, the moment an idea starts to brew. At first he plans to kill himself on stage. But the moments leading into the Murray episode creates a new Arthur. Randall and Gary, two of the clowns from his old job, come over to console and question Arthur. The completely logical reaction for our protagonist is to violently murder Randall. Previously Arthur had killed for defense and survival. He killed his mother because of her betrayal and hatred. Randall however, was killed simply because Arthur wanted to do it. What is even crazier about the moment is how he lets Gary go. Arthur no longer cares about the consequences. He is done worrying.
After he dawns the full makeup and parades it to Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll pt.2’ you can tell he is actually happy. The character casts aside his name, the one given by his mother that he never liked. He embraces a new persona of pure chaos. He is only the Joker now. During the climax, when the Joker goes onto the Murray Live show, he mentions that he doesn’t care about or believe in anything. He also says how the rich, who demand society fits in a box, have no idea what kind of people they are judging. Just like how society gets to dictate what is right or wrong, they dictate what is or isn’t funny. Joker confesses to the three murdered on the train but doesn’t care to defend himself or his actions, he is beyond that. And then he blows a hole in Murray’s face on live television with no feelings of remorse. The world burns.
The city is on fire, people are being killed in alleyways and the Joker finds it beautiful. Humor and beauty are subjective. The movie ends with the city full of clowns that embrace and celebrates the Joker. He has found a life where he brings joy to those around him and all it took was shedding all of his morals. The final scene, with the Joker in Arkham Asylum, begins with a laugh, much like the beginning of the film (not the fake laugh he used to fool people around him) but his real laugh, the one he can’t control. This time he leans into. He doesn’t need to know what’s funny, he will figure it out later. And then kill the woman interviewing him simply because it’s what makes him happy. The plot is a sad and difficult one, but it shows us a man that finally found a way to smile for real in a world that made him sad.
Movie watched and character evolution analyzed by: Troy Smith