The Joker through a new lens: neurodivergence

Published

Credit: Warner Bros.

Alasdair Goudie
Writer

As soon as the first board broke, I knew. As the pieces lay on the ground, spelling “just GO” in fractured text, and the outside world ran away whooping whilst the lone figure lay prostrate, breathless, wheezing and bloodied on the ground, I knew that Joker was going to be a film I could watch only in spurts – through fingers, with regular intervals to look away from the horror of visual and emotional familiarity. The level of pain displayed in what is undoubtedly Todd Phillips’ best work transcended what I would consider to be a good performance, and instead transformed into a spike of true psychological horror. For the first time, I was able to look at the screen and see a true reflection of the social isolation and profound torment that I know lies in the heart of an autist. This film, above all else reflected the daily reality for myself and others living with what the Scottish Government deigns “invisible illnesses”- which, in truth, are entirely different modes of thought, speech, and perception. Asking me to comprehend issues in terms of traditional empathy is like asking a wheelchair user to use a ladder – it’s technically possible, but staggeringly difficult, and an open invitation for chastisement and mockery from both the world and ourselves. The numerous “we live in a society” and “Joker’s vat of chemicals is now society” memes that have been circulating around social media has made me realize that this film portrays what neurodivergent people have said, without being heard, for years. Simply attempting to live in a society that makes no attempt to understand you, that mocks and belittles your attempts to reach out, and actively beats you down when you seek to criticise it, is enough to make anyone crazy.

Summarising the plot of Joker without spoiling it is not only an overdone and hackneyed journalistic tactic to pad reviews, but in this case, it is entirely redundant. Even people entirely unfamiliar with comic books are aware of the general idea of the Joker, and those who aren’t, have likely enough general media awareness to have heard of the insane clamour and moralising that has surrounded the film. Much has also been questioned, too, about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the titular character. When I say he is, in my opinion, the best that there has been on cinema, you must recognise also that that accolade comes from a place of personal significance. Ledger was phenomenal, but he was a portrayal of a comic book character – Phoenix is a direct mirror to the darkest my soul has ever been. When he breaks the glass of a phone booth with his forehead upon losing his job; when he sits, alone, on a bus full of people judging him for a series of outbursts he has no control over; when the trials and traumas of his mind lead him to strike out, to maim, to murder, to brutalise and take joy in the pain of those who mocked and belittled him – this is a road that, were I not lucky enough to have had access to an excellent therapist, medication, and loving parents, my pain could have taken me down.

In a phenomenally subtle moment, after shooting two men he raises a loaded handgun to his temple for half a second, which reflects so much of the hatred and anxiety that has driven people like myself to self-harm, to drink, and to scream. His physical transformation, also often remarked upon, is similarly profound – the emaciated, skeletal state of his frame, like so much of his actions and words, screams of undercut pain and sorrow. I believe it to be some of the best physical acting that we have seen – in a world in which the “method” and the “emotive” styles have dominated cinema, Phoenix’s work here demonstrates that the older methods, ones which rely upon the conveyance of a mood via the large and the small, the entirety of the body and spirit instead of the face, are alive and well. I am also aware that the character of Arthur Fleck himself is never diagnosed as autistic, though the fact remains that he a) still could be, and b) does not need to be, in order to directly address or reflect an issue. Again, my perspective does make me question whether these levels will be observed by neurotypical filmgoers – but quality transcends interpretation, and I believe that Phoenix’s performance, along with excellent supporting roles by Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen, make this an eminently watchable movie on their own.

Of course, even though the performance spoke to me uniquely, a film is never simply its actors. Yet Joker still astounds. The aesthetic style and cinematography perfectly light and capture the tale of working-class, marginalised people striving to live in a city that despises them. Street chase scenes fill with bin bags, and foul, polluted rain clogs up the streets, sticking to the lenses and characters. The costuming and set design are wonderful, with every inch of the cityscapes stinking, cloying demeanour being more acutely realised than Nolan’s sanitised city ever did. The soundtrack is also wonderfully subtle, with hard-hitting drum beats accompanying pivotal moments, sounding both like the beating of a heart and the heavy shoes of a clown. The purchased songs add background and emphasis without the same artfulness, but with a great deal of power. In particular, the much-used trailer song, Smile (isn’t it rich that they couldn’t get the Nat King Cole version, though?) touches on something that it seems Fleck and I know only too well – the pain and the pressure to think as others do. Even around those who claim to understand, those who you like, you love, you trust- the film reflects the pain of having to mask the dour recess that sits in the very core of your heart.