There is something so crucially urgent about the character Arthur Fleck that will ring in your mind, long after the credits have rolled on.
The joker is undeniably one of the most popular and iconic characters and has surprisingly been one celebrated villain, an evil mastermind in The Dark Knight.
We are yet to recover from the groundbreaking portrayal of the Joker by Heath Ledger and here we are overwhelmed with the feral depiction of Arthur Fleck, a tormented soul in the 2019’s Joker by the terrific actor Joaquin Phoenix that took the silver screen with triumph.
Warning: Serious spoilers from this point on.
There’s a point in the first half of the movie when Arthur Fleck is talking to a social worker, who he has his therapy appointments with. We can hardly see the evil in those decent, softening eyes when he asks the social worker, “Is It Just Me, Or Is It Getting Crazier Out There?” Even though the movie is set in the 1980s, it reverberates with the current theme of lawlessness, chaos, and disorder.
This is where we know, the story is not really about a born villain, but a person settling on the unsettling edge of an insidious process of turning into the most feared villain in Gotham city.
We cannot even decipher if this is ‘the person’ going to turn into the antagonist. Is he really the antagonist? The movie is a tightrope walk between feeling pity for Arthur and having to despise him because of his grim and bestial actions.
Arthur, is a decent, almost categorically docile, living in an economically-depressed resident with his mother, who he takes good care of.
To top it all, he was suffering from a neurological condition in which he had bouts of uncontrollable laughter, without any triggers. Fleck, an aspiring stand-up-comedian who was already a winner in his mind, set out to struggle for a stable job in reality. As insults, belittlement, and failure started closing in on him, he gradually started disabusing himself of his philosophy to bring laughter to the world.
It is sad how a guileless person’s hope of being accepted by society and bringing peace and happiness to the world was crushed under the snowballing mockery, disheartenment, and embarrassment. You will sympathize with Arthur, as much as you will relate to him.
Everything is manageable until he gets fired from job for illegally carrying a gun while entertaining in a children’s hospital ward. This was indeed an innocent measure on Arthur’s part as the idea of carrying a gun was entirely devised by Randall, his co-worker. Preceding this incident, Arthur gets brutally kicked and punched by a gang of outlaws. Arthur doesn’t find justice in being fired from the job because he didn’t really consider himself guilty. Which is to some extent, reasonable.
Getting fired from his dream job was a trigger to his underlying chaos, and loneliness. His life was that of a loner, desperately trying to keep his ever surging insanity as a whole. He never had a proper social connection, not even one failed date. The other time he connected with a lady living in the same vicinity, who he starts dating but later in the movie, it’s revealed that the entire incident was his delusion.
His co-workers were not really fond of him. They always boycotted him as ‘weird’ and deviant. It was only sometime later that he realized his co-worker had conspired against him to get him fired.
Remember, the movie is set in Gotham City, a city rife with confusion and perplexity. Half of its inhabitants are left unemployed and impoverished. A furor is conjuring up against the mayor on the run, Thomas Wayne, who feels is the savior of Gotham city of its anarchy. Under such circumstances, Gotham city’s perturbation symbolizes the growing chaos inside Arthur Fleck as his personal experiences increasingly getting deleterious for him.
Once while traveling in the night train, he got attacked and mocked by a gang of three drunkards after his bouts of laughter provoked them. In self-defense, Arthur shot three of them and ended up having killed for the first time.
Among all of these hubbubs, His mother is his only confidence; he believes his mother is the only constant source of inspiration for him, one who he can call his own in a world that has given him reasons to turn cold. The discovery of the contents of his mother’s letters to Thomas Wayne is a breaking point in his life. His anger and resentment get to another level when he discovers in the letter that his mother allegedly had an affair with Thomas during her span of working at his place and that he is Wayne’s bastard child. He decides to confront Wayne, first at his place and second at an Opera show he had attended.
On encountering Wayne at the public loo, he arraigns him of hiding his identity as his father. Wayne loses his temper and denies the fact, instead of tells him that his mother was mentally ill and delusional and that Arthur was actually adopted. Arthur desperately needed to be heard, to be provided with the warmth, the security he lacked in his childhood. He is visibly despondent, disappointed when he says to Wayne,
“I know it seems strange, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I don’t know why everyone is so rude, I don’t know why you are; I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little warmth, maybe a hug dad, maybe a bit of common decency.”
For once, you cannot imagine this same vulnerable person to have any murderous intent.
From this point in Arthur spirals at greater pace in the depth of his own dark past. He is aware of the fact that this world is not his place to be. He visits the Arkham hospital to find out details about his own past. This is the place where his mother was admitted to when she had a mental breakdown.
On learning how he was brutally abused by his mother and her boyfriend, he finds out that his pathological laughter was a result of the brain damage caused by a young Arthur being tied to the radiator.
You have to pause here, and take a few moments to discern the amount of pain the knowledge about his past might have caused to him. It would be wrong to say that Arthur wasn’t trying to contain his wounds but these series of revelation led him to completely break down. He takes a moment to tell us how he felt about his miserable, hopeless life, “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a fucking comedy.” Before he goes on to kill his ailing mother, right on the hospital bed. Arthur Fleck by now has lost control and is stealthily materializing into ‘Joker’ (somehow Arthur Fleck identified himself as Joker, more so than he did as Arthur, maybe because of the joke he had made out of unfortunate life.)
Arthur knew he was living a lie. For the most part of his life, he had been ignored, abused, mistreated and rejected in various insensitive ways. To Arthur, no amounts of killings could ever justify the damage the society did to him.
Ever since the subway killings, his conscience died and some twisted purpose started making sense to him. Humanity, sensitivity was not the ways to deal with the harsh reality. Disturbingly enough, he gave in to killing people, to avenge every bit of wrong done to him.
Arthur unintentionally becomes the symbol of Gotham’s revolution, inspiring other desperate people in the city. He finally starts to be aware of the attention people were giving him and this started feeding his sense of meaning. “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”
The movie is made from the point of view of Arthur at large and we are instigated to sympathize with him. He indeed is in need of empathy and consideration, which he has lacked throughout his entire life. To speak of the climax, Arthur killed the popular talk show host Murray Franklin during a live telecast.
During his appearance in Franklin’s show, Arthur’s jokes are morbid and elicit groans and boos from the audience. Similarly, Franklin starts disapproving of the “self-pity” Arthur starts to engage in. Though it almost looks like he is going to kill himself on show but he doesn’t. He somehow changes his mind and shots Murray because Arthur feels he “fucking deserves” it for mocking his performances earlier. Pertaining to the psychological illness he had, and his personality type, he would rather be killing himself than others. But, he wanted his death to have some meaning (he wrote a line in his journal that ‘I hope my death makes more cents than my life.’).
HE WOULD RATHER DIE, BUT WITH A PURPOSE.
By the end of the story, you will be imposed to think. This movie has impeccably reflected the intricacies of the psyche of a person suffering from mental illness. Todd Phillips, the director of the movie says, “We don’t really talk a lot about what Arthur’s symptoms are, we don’t want to speak like psychiatrists.” Most of the people with mental illness are supposed to succumb to it, without having to display it. In fact, that is what is expected of them. Arthur writes in his ‘joke journal’, “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
But this movie was intended to talk a lot about why people, including you and me, need to stop talking and start listening. Yes, we could help, maybe not a lot but a bit by being able to listen, understand and empathize with the other person. “Nobody is civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy,” Arthur says at one point in the movie.
Arthur has this one, urgent need to be heard, to be wanted, to be seen, to be held and told “We see you trying. We acknowledge your struggle. We know you can heal.” In a session with the social worker, Arthur asks her, “You don’t listen, do you?” He has these mountainous brimming inner turmoil coming for him, and here the society was, leaving no chance to trample him. What he sorted after – revenge – might not have been the best idea, but this truly does not rationalize what society has to offer him.
The movie Joker has a way to show how an innocent’s life is once dehumanized by the system and then this mental torture repeatedly perpetuated to create a psychopath out of a person whose only need was that to be understood. I personally, am not sorry for what Joker did. I am sorry for the growing resentment inside of us, towards our system. I am sorry for the fact that I am a part of this society, for I make this society.
The movie has not only set to emerge out critically and commercially successful but has also managed to win our hearts. Once you watch the movie, you will realize it is not independently made for the loose cannons, but for every one of us. It is not just Arthur’s story of descent into madness, but it’s a representation of how we all are rebellious deep down, looking for an opportunity to unleash the insanity in us. The only difference is that we generally do not have the valour to shout our lungs out and say “I’ve got nothing left to Lose. Nothing can hurt me anymore.” and rebel the wrong, to fight the malfeasance. His ways were undoubtedly a bit too farfetched to be credited, but the truth is Joker was more of a victim than a villain.