In a masterful performance that reaffirms acting as an art form, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a part-time rent-a-clown working for a seedy talent agency. His home life is bleak, living on the poverty line with his ailing mother. Arthur is clearly mentally ill, battling a condition that makes him laugh and cry simultaneously and uncontrollably when under stress, something that only hampers his deluded dedication to a comedy career. But Arthur, tragically, isn’t funny. The irony of this man wanting to bring joy to the world in a universe that gives him none is painfully paradoxical.
Arthur – overlooked, undervalued, abandoned and abused– finds the love and acknowledgment he craves in the worst of ways, through violence, snapping and killing his persecutors. It is the fact this Joker can be perceived as a modern-day anti-hero that has critics divided, audiences enthralled (the film has already taken in a billion dollars at the box office), and authorities frightened. That makes it so important to contemplate why.
The irony of this man wanting to bring joy to the world in a universe that gives him none is painfully paradoxical.
The movie was not screened at the Colorado cinema complex where James Holmes, dressed in “Joker-style garb”, set off tear gas grenades and shot and killed 12 people in 2012 during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, which also features a Joker character.
US military personnel were told to be on alert in case of a mass shooting during Joker screenings and undercover police officers were posted to theatres.
Yet, as its makers argue in response to the film’s alleged potential “incendiary” violence, John Wick – a Keanu Reeves vehicle in which a man kills 300-plus people over a dead dog – is perceived as good, fun entertainment. Hypocrisy much? Rampant violence is not OK if you are mentally ill but fine if you are seemingly sane?
Critics have feared Arthur’s plight will incite incels, or “involuntary celibates”, members of an angry subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner, with its depiction of a lonely man lashing out. This, I believe, is the least concern to be extracted from the film, an alarmist reaction that belies the real menace: the depiction of a society of have and have nots, the latter reduced to mere blights, ugly dross better unseen or heard.
You don’t need to be a celibate incel in today’s culture to feel alienated. I saw a dark part of myself in Arthur, and believe most others watching also will find sympathy, if not empathy, in some unsettling form – even if fleetingly.
And here is what I believe is Joker’s true value: its depiction of mental illness. Yes, it is exaggerated; yes, it is bleak; but damn it is compelling. As psychiatrist Dr Kamran Ahmed wrote in these pages this week:
“In the current political climate all over the world, public health services are shamefully underfunded and public sector health workers feel devalued.
“The scene where the jaded social worker interviewing Arthur tells him, ‘They don’t give a shit about people like you … and they don’t give a shit about people like me either’ will resonate with the mentally ill who feel abandoned and the healthcare professionals struggling to help them.”
It was coincidental that this week a survey was released showing one in two Australians are affected by adverse mental health and that depression and suicide is costing us $180 billion annually. It is hard not to contemplate how many are neglected, hiding in the shadows of our shattered mental-health system, and just what we must do to steer the lost back to the light.
As Ahmed wrote, “Joker searingly addresses some of today’s most pressing issues – mental illness and the disenfranchisement of the underprivileged, which should be our focus. It invites the public to try to understand mental illness and empathise with those suffering from them. It also challenges governments around the world to fund mental health services adequately and reduce inequality.”
My belief is that Joker is too close, too real and too prescient for its critics, a wake-up call to the “woke” and an alarm to the ignorant. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, it is not so much a fiction but a parable. Gotham is here – now. Arthurs are amongst us, and it is no laughing matter.
Wendy Squires is a Melbourne writer.