This article featured in our sixth (November 2019) print issue – details here.

Arthur Fleck is a fictional character. His story, told in Joker, is not, however, one which is wholly detached from the realms of possibility.

It should be noted that this was, by no means, a mistake. In a talk for the Film at Lincoln Center, director Todd Phillips claims the film aimed to explain the back-story of the Joker ‘through as realistic a lens as possible’.

I feared, as I entered the cinema, this would be another dull, violence-filled, over-the-top superhero film. One of Joker’s greatest strengths is that this is not the case, meaning those uninterested in this genre will still be (and indeed are) gripped from start to end.

In sum, the film’s protagonist, Arthur Fleck (played convincingly by Joaquin Phoenix), is an outcast in a tightly-packed, yet distant city, with few real connections to other humans and a humiliating condition which causes sudden, inappropriate and uncontrollable laughter. Beaten down, ignored and chastised by his peers, Fleck snaps and becomes this character of the Joker.

Beyond Phoenix’s wonderful acting, the film’s music, setting and general screenplay make this a stirring performance. It is, however, the messages portrayed in the film which I will comment on here; particularly how and why Arthur Fleck became Joker.

Labeling Joker as ‘the year’s biggest disappointment’, Peter Bradshaw writes for The Guardian (3 October 2019) that the film holds your attention only until Arthur kills three men who were beating him to a pulp on the subway (quite early in the film). For Bradshaw, the ‘anti-capitalist, anti-rich movement’ that follows this is ‘tedious and forced’.

On the contrary, I felt this was a sobering portrayal of the dangers resulting from groups within societies being constantly at each other’s throats (think Leave-Remain, for example).

Explaining why the viewer’s attention is supposedly lost after said killings, Bradshaw writes: ‘Joker’s own criminal and serial-killer career (my emphasis) bafflingly fizzles [after this point].’ Career? Joker’s career was not as a serial-killer (though, of course, he ends up killing); he was a clown – however unsuccessful – and an aspiring stand-up comedian.

Beyond this, he was a carer for his mother, who told him he had a ‘purpose to bring laughter and joy to the world.’ To appreciate the vital messages delivered in Joker, Arthur Fleck must be seen not as a career criminal, praying on victims who he can plunder and murder, but as a victim himself of a society dominated by individualism, selfishness and greed (the neo-liberal Trinity).

I will develop this argument by responding to another review of Joker, this time from The Spectator (5 October 2019). Deborah Ross comments that ‘we’re never invited to ask why Arthur is so mentally ill.’ It seemed, to me, that not a scene in the film passed by without the posing of this question.

Was not the point of the film to discover how a man became the Joker? Are we not invited to consider the causes of Arthur’s illness when we learn he was neglected as a young child and beaten by his mother’s passing boyfriends, his biological father not being present nor, indeed, ever properly identified; or when he accepts the offer of a gun to protect himself from being senselessly beaten (again) by unprovoked thugs, fearless of a police force which is not there; or even during Arthur’s daily commutes, on old and beaten subway carriages, the windows of which overlook dark, dingy, graffiti-coated alleyways in what is clearly a forgotten area of the city?

Most obviously, are we not pushed to ponder the roots of Arthur’s afflictions when the therapy forming part of the treatment of his condition – which, if not acquired by the aforementioned factors, is certainly worsened by them – is slashed by a government that, according to his then social worker, couldn’t care less about people ‘like you’, reducing said treatment to a conglomeration of seven prescription drugs, which Arthur notes make him feel worse?

The obvious answer to all of these questions, for anyone who has seen the film, is yes. Even Ms. Ross highlights the fact that Arthur is ‘beaten up in the street, bullied on the subway and chastised by a mum on the bus because he plays peek-a-boo with her kid’ whilst he simultaneously ‘longs for human connection, which is never forthcoming.’

Not only are we frequently ‘invited to ask why Arthur is so mentally ill,’ the answer is given directly to us, from Arthur himself, near the end of the film, when he asks:

‘What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?… You get what you f*****g deserve.’

Whilst on the surface this may seem rather dystopian, it is, however, closer to reality than we would like to imagine. Starting with the first of the issues outlined above, it is a matter of extraordinary shame (however rarely it is acknowledged) that neglect of children in this country – supposedly modern and advanced – is widespread.

On a basic level, this is demonstrated by the fact that a number of primary schools across the country are having to hire ‘professional nappy changers’, and many more require toothbrushing supervisors, as such basic responsibilities are being ignored by an increasing number of parents.

Essential bonding opportunities within families (which turn children into social beings) are also disregarded more and more by those who prefer, for example, to eat dinner in front of a TV rather than around a table (which requires conversation), and to delegate bedtime reading to Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ device. (This is not an exaggeration. Read BookTrust’s report ‘Alexa, Read a Bedtime Story’. I wish I were making this up.)

On an even more serious level (not to dismiss that written above) my better half is currently working for a psychology practice, assessing clients who are to appear in court; she tells me there is a long, long queue of cases which in some way relate (if not completely) to the neglect – be it abandoning, sexualising or beating – of children by adults who, in many cases, don’t know better, having often suffered the same treatment during their own childhoods.

Our dealings with crime create an equally bleak image of Britain today, hence serious journalists can write, for example, about the ‘knife crime epidemic that continues to plague the streets of London’ without raising the reader’s eyebrow. (This problem, of course, extends out of London. I recommend Melanie Philips chapter ‘The Disordered Child’ in her book All Must Have Prizes for a serious account of how ‘deficiencies in family life create… emotionally vulnerable or damaged children who react to social problems [wherever they live] such as poverty in a different way from children who are emotionally healthy and intact.’)

In our previous issue, I discussed the effect of the abolition of the police’s beat system of preventative foot patrolling. The police simply are not on the streets to be seen so citizens cannot be reassured against the threat of undeterred thugs. Even when these thugs are (rarely) arrested, they are seldom sent to prison. (This topic is also covered in our newly-released crime special issue – Bournbrook Behind Bars.)

The real impact of an ugly environment, as noted above, should also be explored. Traveling home from work one evening on the train, an elderly woman turned towards me to begin a conversation, all others around her focusing down on screens with music thumping through their earphones (it strikes me that the advanced technology enabling worldwide connections for all has made interaction with those right in front of us much more of a rarity). She usually likes to look out of the window when travelling, she tells me, though in many (especially urban) areas, deserts of concrete and graffiti make this tedious and unbearable.

There is a serious point behind this. An intriguing study from 2006 (‘The impact of the physical and urban environment on mental well-being’) shows that such environmental factors as neighbour-hood noise, overcrowding and a lack of green spaces are associated with poorer mental health. These are the dominant characteristics of Joker’s ‘Gotham City’, as well as many urban areas in the real world; we will continue to ignore this issue at our peril.

There is much more I could comment on in relation to the themes discussed above. It is clear, for example, that Fleck had only a basic level of education during his childhood (noticeable from his low hand-writing and spelling capabilities). The reliance on television, especially by Fleck’s mother, is another interesting aspect of the character’s lives, reminding me of this line from Peter Hitchens’ The Abolition of Britain:

‘Lonely and self-reliant, much of our social life concentrated in the workplace rather than the home, we have become a people dependent on television for a simulation of social contact in our leisured hours.’

Such is the density of Phillips’ film regarding commentary on social life today that I highly recommend watching the film yourself to gain an appreciation of the decline of our society.

(I feel I must note here that I don’t believe our society is in such a dire state that everyone will soon become their own version of Joker, just that there is much we should be worried about, and trying harder to amend. Likewise, I do not believe personal responsibility should be stripped from criminal actions.)

I end by noting many critics’ complaint that the film was unwatchable due to it being too unsettling, referencing violence and the infamous laugh. For me, however, the most unsettling feature of Joker is not the violence or even the laugh, but its closeness to reality.


Photo by Ben Sutherland on Flickr.