***The following review contains spoilers for Joker***
Life is so tough that he has to stretch the corners of his mouth with his fingers to try to smile, but a neurological disorder makes him laugh uncontrollably when he is nervous or upset. He suffers from severe depression and is always tormented by others, but his mother calls him ‘Happy.’ He constantly fantasizes about unlikely events like romantic encounters or gaining social recognition, but it is his job in the household to remind his delusional mother that there is no way out of their reality. Even when he finally gets invited onto a famous talk show, it is only to be ridiculed as a failed comedian.
Winner of the highest prestige at this year’s Venice Film Festival, “Joker” narrates the ironic life of Arthur Fleck, who lives paycheck to paycheck by working gigs as a clown hoping to make a big-break as a comedian, while providing for an elderly mother who lives under a naive illusion that her past employer would save them both from their financial difficulties.
Though his life is nothing but a series of humiliation and neglect, Arthur gathers himself for his endearing mother, Penny. Feeble as he is outside of the house, when he steps back in, he becomes the caregiver. Penny is the only person who values Arthur for his kindness and hard work, and it is her love and expectations that keep him grounded amidst his misery.
After getting hands on a gun – which is clearly illegal for the mentally ill – Arthur learns that he is no longer a ‘nobody’. On the subway a group of young men in suits threaten Arthur while he is still in his clown costume. Instead of getting beaten up like the past, he shoots them dead. Startled by his own actions he tries to hide from the chaos, but when he sees a group of protestors crowding the streets dressed as clowns, he realizes that he has become a social icon.
Arthur gets a taste of recognition and support for the first time in his life; even during his sessions with a counselor did he not get a sense of company. He feels empowered and accepted through this incident, but it is not until his relationship with Penny shatters that he becomes bold in his act. When he learns that Penny – who turns out wasn’t even his own mother – had been feeding him a string of lies about his family and childhood, Arthur loses his last reason to conform to society.
In the absence of his mother, Arthur cultivates a new persona that is unlike his old passive self. Instead of condoning humiliation and manipulation, he decides to bring justice to those who cross his feelings by using the gun in his possession. Even after committing murder, rather than showing signs of hesitation or remorse, he dances gracefully down a flight of stairs – as if to celebrate his liberation from the days of oppression.
Through the narrative of what we knew of as a villain, we learn that the Joker is a result of collective social neglect. Arthur Fleck makes an effort to abide by society’s rules and be more sociable in the earlier stages of the movie. He works diligently, carries a notecard explaining his illness to others, continues to get professional help for his mental illness, even makes a fool of himself to fit in with his colleagues. Sadly, the people living in the rotting city of Gotham have no decency to spare on this weakling. They constantly shut him down, sabotage him, and make a mockery out of his innocent dream. It is only when he uses violence to seek vengeance that they become aware of him.
Towards the finale of the movie, a large crowd of clowns cheer him on as the rest of Gotham city burns down in flames in the midst of anarchy. We see that the Joker is a hero to all those who felt diminished in society. For decades the Joker has been regarded a villain, but this film leaves us questioning whether society gave rise to necessary evil.