The Joke Is On Us
The tragedy of filmmaking is that light should be used solely to convey darkness. With so many interesting stories to tell where the characters involved explore the depths of the human soul, most of what passes for commercial filmmaking focuses only on the dark recesses of mankind. Although these dark movies have a lot to say about the time and place where they were made, they must be properly interpreted by well discerning eyes. Always to be appreciated from a safe distance where fact and fiction are clearly distinguished, these films should not encourage the audience to emulate in real life questionable examples set by fictional characters on screen. If reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, it is only because the two may occasionally seem indistinguishable.
“Joker” is one such film that explores the dark recesses of a tortured human soul without condoning, embracing or glorifying the darkness portrayed on screen. It invites the audience to understand how its main character becomes the deranged archcriminal of DC Comics fame. But any association with the superhero universe is a detriment to the story told, especially for a movie that takes itself seriously. The film follows the tragic, harrowing descent of Arthur Fleck, a lost soul hounded by an unforgiving society who oppressed him from birth. Arthur is a man who dreams of a happiness and a sense of professional fulfillment that he was never truly entitled to have due to circumstances well beyond his control. Although some hold the truth to be self-evident, believing all men were created equal, those like Arthur would most certainly disagree.
Abandoned by a father he never met and raised by a mentally ill mother who long ago succumbed to her own personal demons, Arthur works as a struggling clown who desperately tries to extract a modicum of laughter, dignity and joy from an otherwise tragic life, one he so frantically insists on interpreting as a comedy. Struggling to survive in a major American urban center, he is subjected to unrelenting humiliation and violence, while being treated as an outcast that desperately longs only to be accepted. Despite daydreaming of success in showbusiness as a standup comedian who works on television, Arthur´s compromised social skills severely limit his interaction with ordinary members of society. Suffering from uncontrollable bouts of laughter at the most inconvenient times, he inadvertently offends strangers, being forced to inhabit a world of his own tortured imagination.
After being assaulted and robbed by a gang in one of the first scenes of the movie, Arthur muses to a social worker, “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” Raised by a broken family, Arthur becomes a broken man desperately trying to find his way through an unforgiving world that never gave him much of a chance. As he longs to find meaning in a life entirely devoid of love and support, church and family are simply nowhere to be found. Despite living as a mentally ill pariah, none of his problems are addressed by the medication taken. That a man in so much pain should earn a living by eliciting laughter from the very society that constantly oppresses and humiliates him is a contradiction not to be lost on anyone. Working as a clown, his pursuit of happiness consists of bringing joy and laughter to a world that only wants to tear him down.
But as the story unfolds, the more Arthur is subjected to violence, the more he responds by becoming violent himself. The movie depicts a spiraling cycle of abuse that leads Arthur to confront his abusers with greater violence than he was previously subjected to. Refusing to accept this never-ending cycle of abuse, violence and humiliation, Arthur strikes back by taking the lives of outwardly successful and supposedly productive members of society, those who shared a sadistic pleasure in abusing him. By the time he is finally given an opportunity to perform his act on television, the tragic transformation into an archcriminal was already complete. Confronting the very society that abused and humiliated him his entire life, he no longer strove to elicit laughter only to feel accepted. The man once called Arthur Fleck had finally become the Joker.
Entirely devoid of histrionic special effects, "Joker" grossed over one billion dollars worldwide and earned Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar for best actor. Offering a stellar dramatic performance that carried the entire film, Phoenix embodied the gaunt, emaciated figure of a man struggling to believe in his own existence amid a society that simply had no time or place for him. Only when Arthur Fleck finally lashes out, killing supposedly fine and upstanding members of society, is a public commotion raised in support of his actions. Hardly is he the only one feeling alienated and assaulted by a society that dehumanized him to the point of embracing violence and lunacy. As large crowds are always more dangerous than those who attract them, the city is then thrown into chaos. The issue of extreme social inequality is also brought to bear when Arthur's humble origins and impoverished lifestyle is contrasted with the imperious words of billionaire Thomas Wayne, his alleged estranged father frequently seen only on television.
That so many people across so many countries identified with such a dark story having little or no uplifting value speaks volumes about this day and age. In fact, a lot can be said about a society according to those it chooses to portray as its villains. While laws are codified to punish their conduct, prisons are erected to restrict their freedom. When the apparent irrationality of their actions impugns their sanity, these villains are heavily medicated, sedated, and locked away in insane asylums. For those who believe that out of sight is out of mind, involuntary commitment, incarceration and extrajudicial killings are the only available answers for tortured souls like Arthur Fleck. It is no coincidence that America has the largest prison population in the world and the highest incarceration rate of any country. What truly guarantees freedom in the land of the free and home of the brave should be a hotly contested topic of much debate. After all, what is freedom in the land of the American dream where so many frequently pursue a happiness that is so rarely ever found?
Although the people stand against the values these criminals epitomize, a sincere effort is hardly ever made to understand how they first spiraled out of control. Criminals like Arthur Fleck are not simply born, they are created over time when subjected to unrelenting, mounting pressures that destroy their souls and obliterate their dreams. After arming himself for protection, taking a gun to the cancer ward of a children's hospital when visiting as a clown is what apparently makes sense in Arthur's desolate world. Even while working as a clown surrounded only by sick children does he feel the urge to protect himself. The question is what brought him to this point. Little or no responsibility is ever ascribed to the society that so often oppresses, alienates and vilifies its most vulnerable members. This subhuman treatment only exposes the injustice and hypocrisy of a state that punishes its weakest members for the sins of its supposedly strongest ones. If the measure of a society is taken from those it chooses to portray as its villains, then Arthur Fleck may be the Joker, but the joke is on us.