The year is 1981, and Gotham resides in an America beginning Ronald Reagan’s “free market revolution.” Amidst significant cuts to welfare and the social safety net, the city is a murky urban jungle, overrun by mutant rats who have multiplied since a large-scale garbage strike. The wealth divide between the rich and poor has never been larger, and there is significant lingering resentment towards the ruling elite. In this bleak setting, the audience is introduced to Arthur Fleck.
On seven different medications and plagued by a condition that causes him to begin laughing uncontrollably under stress or anxiety, he is an outcast in this broken and dungy reality and unable to find his place in the world, partly due to a government that has left him behind. To get away from it all, he dreams of being a stand-up comedian. The one problem is, as his mother puts so frankly: “you have to actually be funny to be a comedian.”
At the very heart of this film is the question of the human condition and the type of society that causes men to become broken and the public to revolt against the institutions that govern it. The city of Gotham in Joker is one of violence and despair—the subdued yellow and green colors create a chilling sense of alienation. The cello score masterfully embedded in the film only underpins this, constantly throbbing with a dark and haunting energy.
Many of the film’s themes have pointed comparisons to the modern day, particularly in regard to Gotham’s dwindling welfare services. It is no surprise that Arthur’s gradual transformation into a serial killer is predicated by the social safety net protecting him totally unravelling. Along with his medications, he meets every week with his counselor to discuss his mental state and his ambitions. Yet, this counselor is unexpectedly pulled from him amid government welfare cuts. In truth, this is the final straw with a social system that Arthur has grown increasingly disillusioned with. He seems distant in his meetings with his social worker, growing frustrated at her repetitive questions, and stops taking his pills, convinced they are limiting him.
What is most striking about the government’s sudden abandonment of Arthur is that he is extremely economically insecure, on little to no pay working as a clown and with a mother desperately in need of medical care. He has been in and out of government institutions his entire life. Abused by his mother’s violent ex-boyfriend, suffering traumatic head trauma and various other injuries, it is implied he has regularly been in Arkham State Hospital.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the system appears so unforgiving to the downtrodden given the movie’s setting in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was leading a neoliberal “free market” revolution to public life in the U.S. His most prominent legislation aimed at disenfranchising women he dubbed “welfare queens” who allegedly abuse the welfare system. He therefore shrunk social programs in an attempt to create jobs. A consequence was that the most vulnerable in society were left largely to fend for themselves, partly causing the country’s poverty rate to hit 15% by 1983.
Indeed, the movie could even be offering a pointed critique of the current United States government, where attempted cuts to institutions like mental health have long been proposed by President Trump. The film makes it clear that when hard times hit, it is often the most vulnerable who are affected. That is not to say that declining mental health is a direct cause for violence—indeed, studies have found that there is limited relation between the two. Yet the movie still uses his increasingly aggressive psychotic breakdowns as a successful narrative tool to show the impact on the downtrodden.
Immediately obvious in this film is that Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker is far from any previous one. Gone is the quicksilver charisma and resolute confidence of Heath Ledger’s portrayal, or the cartoonish appeal of Jack Nicholson’s take. Instead, we see a vulnerable and shaky man, so skeletally thin that his shoulder blades and spine protrude from his skin as he bends over like a fallen angel with its wings cut off. He has little in his life that motivates him—his work is monotonous and unrewarding and he is quiet and lacking in communication skills, often missing interpersonal cues. Thus, he has little human connection to anyone but his mother. His oddities lead others to regularly torment him; we see him twice attacked by youths in his clown gear. However, what most strikingly differentiates him from other Joker portrayals is that he doesn’t appear inherently malicious, and in fact, initially seems well-meaning, firmly believing his purpose in life is to put a smile on people’s faces. When he whispers, “I don’t want to feel so bad anymore,” it comes from a place of genuine sadness. This is not the Joker, but Arthur.
Given Arthur’s mental health, it is no coincidence that the true turning point in the film in his character’s arc is when he is offered a gun for self-protection. As he dances through his living room, shuffling and twisting with a .38 in his hand, he realizes he has found a direct way to vent his frustrations with the wider world. The audience must question what kind of world Arthur lives in where the basic medical supplies he needs to stay stable are severed while obtaining a potentially lethal weapon is as easy as being passed a suspicious-looking cardboard bag. Again, comparisons with the modern-day United States are stark. With the immensely powerful NRA lobby still controlling many politicians’ decisions through money and political pressure, there remains a stubborn insistence on preventing increasing the spread of more extensive background checks. The President himself refuses to attribute this as a solution to increasing gun violence (he regularly shifts the blame to mental health instead, particularly ironic considering his reluctance to increase government expenditures on it). Through this, Joker suggests that any institutional system that leaves the poor to fend for themselves while simultaneously allowing them easy access to such weapons is an inherently unstable one, a devotion to individualism that risks straying into anarchy. Unfeeling breeds unfeeling, particularly with those who have little to live for, and violence as a means of escape is often a byproduct. Empowered by Arthur’s panicked shooting of three predatory investment bankers on the dilapidated subway and emboldened by men like Thomas Wayne calling Gotham’s poor “clowns,” the disillusioned workers of the city begin to don clown masks and begin violent protests.
An intriguing reaction to Joker is the sheer amount of criticism the film has received for its perceived glorification of violence. Many, including the survivors of the massacre themselves, pointed to the 2012 Colorado shooting, where a mentally ill young man with bright dyed hair shot and killed 12 and injured over 70 in a movie theater screening of The Dark Knight Rises, as evidence that the movie could encourage a potential mass shooter. On the surface, this seems reasonable—like Arthur, many mass shooters are socially-isolated individuals who feel mistreated by society. Yet, this film is not made to glorify this kind of violence. By the time Arthur has fully fledged into a face-paint wearing serial killer, he is hardly a sympathetic figure. Whether he is stalking his next-door single mother neighbor, viciously stabbing his former co-worker in the neck, or smothering his own mother with a pillow, he is pitiful, a byproduct of a deeply nihilistic society that has produced utter despair, causing men to commit unfathomable acts.In the climactic final scene, we see Arthur being dragged from a police car and victoriously raised in front of a jubilant set of mask-wearing rioters. His vision is complete, and the society around him that he believes is so broken will never be the same. Joker’s message is brutalistic and disturbing, but raises an important message for modern governments: any society that does not focus its legislation on compassion for those who most need it risks not only furthering inequality, but also building unnecessary class resentment that leads many to dark paths. When the institutions meant to support you let you down, it is very easy to believe, as Arthur puts it, that “everyone is awful.”