Joker: A cinematic masterpiece that exposes unsettling truths about our societies

Actor Joaquin Phoenix plays the Joker.

Todd Phillip’s Joker is a tragic and haunting piece of cinematic art, which addresses many uncomfortable truths about the societies we live in today, writes Amar Alam.

Joker is not a film that everyone will enjoy and it was not produced for that purpose. Some will be put off by the dark bleak tone and the subject matter under discussion. While others will dislike the film for being extremely unconventional, especially for a character born within a superhero universe.

Joker is a complex art house film that is essentially a psychologically driven character study of Arthur Fleck (eventually known as ‘Joker’). It provides an insight into the brutal reality of social isolation, societal fragmentation and mental illness at a time when society lacks basic elements of empathy and humanity for its inhabitants.

It is inspired and influenced by late 70’s and early 80’s art house films like Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Mean Streets, Network and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Cinematic art

In order for it to be widely accessible it has been dressed up in the garb of a mainstream Hollywood film. Yet, make no mistake, Joker is a piece of cinematic art that we have been deprived of for decades. A type of film that has been missing for a generation due to Hollywood’s obsession with maintaining the status quo.

Without spoiling the film, Joaquin Phoenix plays the titular character Joker, who turns in one of the most astonishing performances ever captured on film. He presents us with a portrayal of a failed stand-up comedian named Arthur Fleck in Gotham City during the early 80’s, who from the onset is depicted as struggling with mental illness. Over the next two hours, through no fault of his own, we are provided with a brutally powerful depiction of his apparent descent into madness.

Facing uncomfortable truths

The film challenges and forces its audience to face themes they will find extremely uncomfortable. As a society we have made a habit of brushing our problems under the carpet. Joker not only lifts that rug, but it pulls it right from under our feet by showing us the brutal horror of what it means to be broken by society in every way imaginable.

It is a film that illustrates our inability to deal with trauma, our need for compassion, and our capacity for destruction borne from the way we are treated by society. It is a story that should resonate with us on a personal level, about our position in society, and how we deal with our own fragility and vulnerabilities. This includes our need to be accepted by others around us.

The beauty of art house cinema is that it can be interpreted in a number of ways. However, several commentators have attempted to weaponise the film as a piece of political propaganda by interpreting it through the prism of the far right, Brexit, the Me-Too movement and Donald Trump. Sorry to disappoint those who choose to do so, but the film is not about any of the aforementioned issues. This is something the protagonist makes very clear throughout the film.

Rather, it points the camera inwards and presents us with a glimpse of our own insecurities. It highlights a personal and uncomfortable truth that no matter what we choose to identify as, we are solitary human beings born on a planet which does not care whether we live or die, because the show must go on.

Ever since we were children, we have always been taught that if we live decent lives, are good to others then good will be done to us. But as adults, despite how uncomfortable it may be for many to admit, many have come to the painful realisation that in the societies we inhabit, this is wholly untrue.

Mental health

For many like Arthur, living in an immoral and depraved world has led to perverse life-changing experiences being inflicted upon them during their childhood, which have carried on into adulthood through the manifestation of serious mental illnesses.

Some social commentators have expressed how the film mocks mental health issues. It does nothing of the sort. Rather, it shines a light on the burden placed on those who suffer from these serious conditions and the indifference in which they are treated by society.

Arthur sums it up perfectly in the film when he says, “the worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t”.

Despite what critics and some who want to use the film as a political tool have said about the visceral and raw violence depicted on screen, Joker is not a film about violence. Rather, it is about our need as a society to be empathetic. One act of kindness could be everything to someone suffering in isolation. The violence we see on screen is essentially a metaphorical response to the brutal feelings of isolation that exist when one is inflicted with serious mental illness.

Contextualising violence

If anyone’s take away from the film is to highlight the violence we briefly see on screen, then they have failed to understand that the film is screaming at us that violence is not the answer to our problems.

In fact, more abuse and violence is inflicted upon Arthur than anyone else in the film, and it is through this affliction that we begin to see the world around him for what it truly is.

Ever since the film was lauded with the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film Festival, it has been met with controversy. Some have claimed that Joker leaves the viewer with a morally ambiguous message that will encourage incels, a trait recognised in Arthur, to commit murder.

This is a predictable scaremongering media violence trope we have heard for decades about films by politicians and societal leaders to cover up their own failings that have led to the immoral and depraved societies we live in today.

Those reading this review may have been put off watching the Joker due to the subject matters under discussion, but this is why it is imperative for us to watch this film. By seeing the true depths of how our society can unintentionally or intentionally push ordinary people to the edge of insanity, maybe it will force us to reflect on our own expressions of compassion and empathy.

Amar Alam has studied an undergraduate Psychology degree and an MSc in Research Methods in Psychology at the University College London (UCL). He has worked in the mental health field for a number of years, and has had academic articles published in medical journals.

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