“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” asks Arthur Fleck, who at the end of “Joker” is known as the iconic villain.
That question is asked near the end, but the entire story is centered around finding the answer. This is not a story to further the Batman or DC universe; it is not about heroes or villains; it is not a comic book adaption. This is an origin story, but there’s more to it than just discovering where Joker came from.
This is a brutal study of a man, one who struggles with trauma, mental health and fitting in. This is a deep look into society and what exactly you get when society turns their back on someone, then abuses them until they can’t take it anymore.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown-for-hire in Gotham City. Ultimately, he wants to be a comedian, but it isn’t going so well. He lives with his delusional mother who requires his constant care.
Arthur has been hurt in every way possible. He is physically and mercilessly beaten up several times and has emotional trauma that has caused serious mental health complications to take over his life and happiness. He has been hurt most extremely by society—no one accepts him or protects him; no one is looking out for him or taking care of him. People don’t notice him, and those who do think he’s weird and unsettling.
The only support he receives is from a city social worker, but that quickly disappears when city funding for social services is cut, along with Arthur’s access to the seven medications he takes. He triggers a political revolution in Gotham City after he violently lashes out at three men who attack him on a subway. The men are rich, educated and have comfy jobs—in other words, accepted by society and thriving in their place in it.
“They don’t give a sh— about people like you, Arthur,” his social worker tells him. We learn this is true in the most grimy, raw, brutal way. The movie serves as commentary to take an honest and intense look at people we cast aside in society but also to study our own minds.
Unlike ways the Joker has been portrayed in the past, audience members relate with Arthur because we are in his world and mind. You may connect because you also struggle with mental health, feel like an outsider or have experienced trauma. But Arthur’s everyday struggles are also universally felt by humanity—the desire to be loved, noticed, accepted and seen by others.
A scene toward the beginning of the movie shows Arthur putting on clown makeup for a gig. As he cakes on the paint, a tear runs through his makeup. That cuts deep, as we can all relate to putting on our own masks to hide the hurt inside.
“Joker” is a hard-to-watch yet important character study into an ostracized member of society. Phoenix’s performance as Arthur is powerful and unforgettable as he dances, shrieks, screams, runs, lashes out and explodes in menacing laughs. He is emotional and disturbing, fragile and threatening, vulnerable and crazy—he’s on fire for the whole performance.
What you watch will hurt you and compassionately make you wonder why anyone could ever be treated like Arthur is. Though the violence is cruel and disturbing, the story forces us to consider how we treat people in society who struggle through life, who are cast aside and live on the outskirts of this world and who need us to see and help them so their pain doesn’t push them over the edge. Five stars.