Movie review throwback: “Joker” is a disturbing film calling for compassion

(Content warning for talk of violence, mental illness, and abuse)  


3.5/5 ***-

“Joker,” (2019) directed by Todd Philips, is a psychological thriller centering on the DC villain, the Joker. The film centers around Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring standup comedian who lives in poverty with his mother, Penny (Francis Conroy). As the film goes on, more and more things happen resulting in Arthur becoming more violent towards the world around him and finally spiraling into becoming the Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is absolutely terrifying and his ability to make the character of the Joker able to be sympathized with is equally terrifying. There have been multiple interpretations of the film since the release, and personally I think the film shows the importance of funding programs to help society’s most vulnerable as well as to show compassion to everyone. 

To be clear, there is no correlation between mental illness and violence or extreme poverty and violence. According to, 3-5% of violent crimes are attributed to those with mental illness. While mental illness and poverty play a factor in Arthur’s descent into turning into the Joker, the character was always capable of violence and the events of the film only pushed him over the edge. It is important to note that the character of the Joker is responsible for all of his actions and there is no way to excuse his behavior. 

 The film is a statement and it highlights the importance of having well-funded resources for the poor, especially mental health resources. At the start of the film, Arthur meets with a social worker (Sharon Washington), who is clearly underpaid and overworked, taking patients in a poorly lit and cluttered office. As a result, she is burnt out and cannot be the therapist that Arthur needs. Later in the film due to budget cuts, Arthur has to stop seeing her. As a result, he cannot get the medication he needs. This is the first major example of the higher ups in Gotham ignoring and failing the city’s most vulnerable. The social worker summed it up perfectly when she said “they don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a shit about people like me, either.” Those at the top would much rather ignore the city’s impoverished and leave them with nothing instead of funding programs to help them. 

The lack of care and compassion for the vulnerable is the main cause in Arthur turning into the Joker. What starts Arthur on this descent is when he is taking the subway home after being fired and  is harassed by three businessmen. When he starts laughing uncontrollably — a result of a traumatic brain injury he received from being abused as a child — the men beat him until Arthur shoots and kills all three of them. After the murders, there is public outcry over the deaths of these three men. Billionaire and mayoral candidate, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), condemns the murders and criticizes those who are siding with the killer. While violence should absolutely be condemned, the film makes a point to show that the elite do not care about the systemic issues in the city until one of their own are affected They do not question why things are the way they are. It is monstrous and disturbing that Arthur has feelings of ecstasy after the killings, but it is important to note that Arthur killed two of the men in self-defense. At the end of the film, when he confesses to the subway murders live on Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro)’s late night show, he points out that if it was him dead in the street no one would care. When Arthur kills Murry, it is because Arthur was enraged that his idol was laughing at and profiting at the expense of his struggles. Violence is never the answer, however, and it is terrifying that Arthur finds enjoyment from it. Arthur’s violent actions in the film are inexcusable, but the film disturbingly makes the audience feel and understand his reasonings. 

The film is trying to tell people to not abuse or laugh at the expense of others, but to show compassion. Not because someone could snap and kill people, but because there is no possible way that someone could know what someone is going through; that little bit of compassion could go a long way. In my opinion, this film does not vilify mental illness nor glorify violence, rather it exposes the complex societal issues that can cause people to let go of their restraint.