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I had little idea what to expect from Joker. I was not going to go see Joker initially; it hadn’t been on my radar. Creepy clown horror films aren’t my thing, I’d like sleep at night, thank you very much. And superhero films, here’s looking at you Batman and Spider-Man, I can take or leave. But when someone said it was a psychological thriller aimed at commenting on the social ills of society and had nothing to do with superheroes, I immediately knew I had to watch it. Sleep could be sacrificed.
Joker is bleak. It is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It is a giant gut punch. I left feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of me. The knuckles that are the human lack of empathy and understanding met the lower part of my abdomen repetitively throughout the entire two hours.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, the human behind the face of the Joker. Arthur is a middle-aged man with a history of childhood trauma, abuse, alongside a laughing disorder which mimics Tourette’s syndrome. He is a clown by day and caretaker of his frail mother by night. He has fits of laughter that erupt with no warning. He sits low on the scale of socioeconomic status in the middle of Gotham City. His mother has a history of paranoia, and as the movie progresses the reality of Arthur becomes less clear, his reality fuzzies.
Arthur has everything working against him. He is bullied, isolated, a product of emotional and physical abuse, and mental illness as a result. At every public shaming or bullying he endures, you can see in his eyes that he wants belonging; he wants to be truly happy. He looks in the mirror and pulls the corners of his mouth upward to match the red smile painted on his clown face. He wants happiness. The world, though, is not a place for the Arthur Flecks of society. It is not friendly to those who have mental illness, those who are different. Those who have lived harsh realities and experience debilitating loneliness.
Arthur Fleck did not start out as the Joker. He started out as a misunderstood man. Gotham misunderstood him. Gotham could not see past his obvious social oddities. Since the only thing Gotham City felt when it encountered the Joker was discomfort, it pushed him further away. Pushed him past sadness and depression, into anger and hatred.
I anticipated the hardest thing to watch would be the violence and sadness of the Joker: what abuse created and society reinforced. It wasn’t. The hardest thing was listening to the moviegoers’ laughter. It wasn’t as if the whole theatre was in uproar. Many were silent, nervously crunching on popcorn. But every so often there were a handful of loud chuckles that made me nauseated. Squirming in my seat, mouth open feeling sick. I’m not sure what was worse—that there were only a few laughing or that there were so many still silent. I wanted to stand up with my tear-stained face and shout, “STOP LAUGHING AT THE JOKER – YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM; WE ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM!” For the sake of the movie and the rest of the audience, I sat silent.
And yet silence in the midst of injustices kills just as much as laughter does. When we remain silent in the face of mental illness and the injustices that exist in society, we contribute to the making of humans who must destroy to feel a sense of control they have never had.
My friends, we are Gotham City. Whether we sit somewhere between silence or laughter, we are Gotham. We contribute to the brokenness of humanity. We are the brokenness of humanity.
The movie has abounded in controversy. Many say it glorifies violence or tries to make excuses for violence. In all this controversy, the point i
s somehow missed. What Joker so aptly points out is the way in which society, in all its brokenness, contributes to the brokenness of others. We can lift up or tear down.
We have the ability to help in the healing of others by leaning into our own discomfort so far that we move past it and into empathy. Or we can sit still in discomfort, frozen, allowing it to dictate fear-based reactions that only reinforce the brokenness. Gotham City reacted out of fear. The nasty underbelly of familial abuse, trauma, and societal oppression is in Arthur’s pain, in his search for answers from childhood. And Gotham’s residents couldn’t give him the answers he wanted. They did not give him empathy and closeness where he needed to be seen and known. They could only give him fear and more pain.
While we are responsible for our actions, we do not make decisions in a vacuum. The Joker was not created simply by a man who had a hankering to kill. While controversial, what the movie portrays is compounding oppression eventually leads to a weakening of the will and increase in impulsivity. His sadness and loneliness lead to anger, with impulsiveness coursing through his veins. Anger and impulsivity are lethal not only to society but to the individual.
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Arthur is angry. Angry at others for not seeing him. Angry at Gotham City for oppressing him and others like him. And angry at his mother for being untruthful about the childhood he repressed.
The world is full of Arthurs. Full of Jokers. And we all have a choice. Do we see those who are different from us, who may cause discomfort as individuals to be avoided, cast out to the margins of society? Or do we see each human, no matter how broken or different they may be, as holding a piece of the divine? A piece of the sacredness that is the image of God.
Joker asks this of all who engage in the film. What do you see in the Arthur Flecks of this world? Whom do you see behind the mask of the Jokers? Can we see beyond the pain and suffering, beyond the evil caused due to harms of others?
As people of faith it is imperative we do just that. I believe the film is asking everyone in the audience to contemplate how certain behaviors arise.We have already been asked to do so thousands of years ago.
It might not be the originating intention of director Todd Phillips to see Christ in every human. Yet in showing the destructive nature of mental illness, and highlighting the humanity behind such destructive behavior, Phillips asks the audience to see past behaviour. He provides a window for us to see humans for who they are, messy, hurting, and still wildly beautiful. We oppress others through systems, structures and relationships. Yet we also have innate desires and longing for happiness and love.
And who would have thought that a movie such as Joker would bring me to this conclusion? I most definitely did not enter the movie anticipating this outcome. But this is the glory of film, the art of telling story, of pulling back the curtain of the Joker and revealing the why.
And so, friends, we must look for the divine in everyone. We must seek the face of Christ in the eyes of the most pained humans. Because in a world that seeks to destroy the soul, seeking out the image of God in every human being is an act against everything that made the Arthur Fleck into the Joker. It is in these small acts of rebellion that we shall find the kingdom of God drawing nearer.