Joker is a masterpiece. The cinematography, locations, costumes, lighting and colour grading make the film visually beautiful, and Joaquin Phoenix is truly mesmerising as the lead; I think an Oscar will be forthcoming. But aside from all that, the film powerfully reminds us that we are collectively responsible when things go terribly wrong, as it seeks to complicate rather than to simplify the story of a serial murderer.
What makes this so deeply moving is how utterly believable the narrative is. There are no super heroes, no ludicrous fight sequences, and no Batmobiles. Instead, Joker is a portrait of one man, Arthur Fleck. He is mentally ill, apparently as a result of childhood abuse. He has no prospects, no meaningful relationships and no hope that things will get better for him. His attempts to progress and connect are met with heckling and rebuke. And although there is no single event that marks Arthur’s transformation, what we witness is a man slowly – and, in a terrifying sense, inevitably – gravitating towards murderous actions.
Joker forces us to ask questions about culpability as it reveals the complex roadmap to creating a ‘psychopath’ (if that is what Arthur is). In so doing, the film highlights our individual and societal responsibility in tragic cases such as these. It suggest that ‘Killers aren’t born, they are made’ and, however much I want to condemn a person as ‘evil’ in order to distance myself from their behaviour, a more subtle and holistic approach will undoubtedly reveal a toxic tangle of events which, if I had lived through myself, might have led to comparable behaviour. The words of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seem applicable here: "There is no crime of which I cannot conceive myself guilty."
As Christians we do not deny the reality or the responsibility of external influences and influencers. We can also acknowledge psychological predispositions and physiological abnormalities. But we also know that our hearts are desperately wicked and, given the motivation and means, we might act out that evil. Even so, I can’t help but feel that if everything was done perfectly in the protection and care of the ‘predisposed’ and the ‘abnormal’, maybe no one would end up murdered.
We live in a divisive time. Pointed accusations are quickly levelled at those we perceive to be ‘other’. We are quick to presume ourselves righteous, and those who differ ideologically, politically, culturally and even ethnically we see as malevolent and wrongly motivated. This simplistic demonisation of ‘other’ results in the promotion and intensification of division, distrust and alienation. Compassion and an appreciation of subtle complexity are no longer part of public discourse, and it is precisely these conditions that cultivate a societal environment in which an individual is likely to ‘act out’.
There is a particular scene that haunts me still. Arthur is riding the bus home after a number of critical setbacks, and he is struggling to keep things together. A child who sits in the seat in front of him turns around and begins to interact with him playfully. Arthur is kind to the child and makes him laugh. One is made to feel the deep significance of this human interaction, perhaps amplified by the innocence of the child who does not judge Arthur. The mother of the child notices what is going on, and immediately rebukes and condemns Arthur. Hope is snatched away in that moment, and things plummet from bad to worse as his anxiety provokes a rather public and humiliating manifestation.
Nothing is simple; as the viewer we understand the gravity of the scene on the bus. And as a viewer I wanted to reach out and hug Arthur and tell him everything is going to be okay, to tell him that he matters. But the agonising truth is that if I were on the bus, and if I had no understanding of who Arthur was or what he had been through, I would act no differently than anyone else in that scene.
Joker made me ask questions of myself. In what ways am I part of the problem? How could I be more compassionate towards others, particularly those who seem outwardly to warrant a wide birth.
Jesus met people where they were. He was compassionate towards the outcast and the disenfranchised. He wasn’t worried about being associated with the worst of us. Jesus didn’t simplify, label or alienate people; he drew near and sought to know them deeply, offering them love and a hope of future glory.
I want to be more like him.