The tears welling up in my eyes as I left the movie theatre came as a big surprise to me. Not just because Joker had managed to produce tears of deep sadness instead of tears of laughter, but because of how unappealing I found the movie trailer when I first saw it some months back.
I had come to watch this film only to see what the fuss was about. What I wasn’t expecting was to discover a piece of cinema that tapped into some of my own personal grief, and what I also believe to be the collective grief of many other men.
The steady current of anger, sadness, self-hatred and loneliness that ran deep below the surface of my teenage years – which were punctuated by two nervous breakdowns – had a certain colour and smell to it. Tones which somehow, director Todd Phillips managed to capture perfectly through the use of certain camera angles and soundtrack placement – forcing me to re-live it throughout the film.
These days, some 20 years and a ton of self-work later, it takes a lot (and I mean, a lot) to ‘trigger’ me. But triggered I was, and gratefully so as Joker put me back in touch with some things that perhaps needed revisiting.
In Joker, we follow what appears to be the descent of one man – Arthur Fleck – into madness. The subject of mental health isn’t an undertone in this film, it’s a highlighted feature as we watch Fleck discuss his medication dosage with his social worker very early in the movie.
We find that the trauma that underpins his mental health issues lies not only in paternal abandonment in childhood – a well-trodden subject with male protagonists – but also in his dealings with the archetypal toxic mother.
It took me until my 30’s to realize (admit, perhaps) the amount of resentment I held towards my mother who had died a decade earlier. And it’s a similar story for many of the men (and women, in fact) who I coach and mentor.
It’s easy to be angry at Dad. God knows that as men, we are acutely aware at how much rage there is towards the patriarchal structures of the world. We feel it because our fathers were shit. And we feel it because that rage is often aimed in our direction as we fit the general description of that particular bad guy – man.
But to speak against Mother, for whom we have had to play the role of protector, counselor and comforter in absence of a strong and healthy father, or in the presence of a toxic and abusive one, is incredibly difficult.
It’s difficult for many of us to admit to ourselves that we are actually furious not at us having to step into that role like good little soldiers, but at her for not telling us that it wasn’t our job. That we weren’t encouraged to just be little boys, as she enjoyed us being ‘her little man’ instead.
We observe Fleck’s relationship to his mother change in the course of the film. It is in fact a central theme and at the heart of his personal transformation. A transformation that puts the viewer in the awkward position of trying to find the line between what is at once a decent into madness and what also appears to be the personal liberation of Fleck.
In the latter half of the film, we witness Fleck make the final cut to the metaphorical umbilical cord to his mother in the most dramatic fashion at which point he turns towards a window, standing there looking up with the sun shining on his face. He is at the most peaceful we have seen him thus far.
His criminal madness at this point feels a lot more like enlightenment – the lightening of the heavy burden of the toxic mother and the revelation and emerging of his true self.
When in a scene not much later we see Fleck paint on the iconic and unmistakable makeup of the Joker for the first time, we see a man not putting on a mask of supervillain strength, but the taking-off of the mask of the Nice Guy.
Early in the film we see Fleck bathing his sick, elderly and – disturbingly – naked mother in the bath of the small apartment they share. And we learn that his pursuit of performing as a clown and comedian has its origins in him being told by his mother that he’s here to bring joy and laughter to the world. He was tasked from day one with being her good little boy, encouraged to always be happy, but never got the memo that as a grown man this wasn’t his job anymore. How he begins to discover the toxicity that underpins his relationship with his mother reflects an important experience in my own life.
Not long ago, in my early thirties, as I sorted through some of my mum’s old paperwork which I’d not brought myself to throw out until that point, I discovered a court welfare report that gave a psychiatric evaluation of my mum, my sister and I, with the aim of convincing a judge to deny contact between my dad and myself following my parents’ divorce. The bulk of the document was focused on me. It painted a picture of a traumatized 8-year-old, unable to function in school, his reading and writing age three years below what it should be, unable to sleep due to night-terrors, frequently ill and afraid to go to school because he was afraid his dad would ‘get’ his mum if he wasn’t there to protect her.
Similarly, Fleck obtains a psychiatric report detailing a past he clearly can’t remember of himself and his mother, who he discovers has lied to him about several key details of his childhood. We learn that she allowed her boyfriend – not Fleck’s dad, who remains unknown – to abuse him. And that the origin of Fleck’s uncontrollable laughter is a trauma response in which the laughter inappropriately replaces what would otherwise be screams of terror and despair.
Attached to the report I found were diaries kept by my mum of my dysfunctional behaviour and the stress it was causing her. It became clear to me that the purpose of these notes wasn’t so much to improve my emotional wellbeing as they were to ‘win’ the court case by providing evidence of the effects of my dad’s abusive behaviour. She was ultimately trying to keep me safe as I was genuinely terrified of him, but I learned from these documents that what I actually needed was to feel protected and seen by my mum. Not observed and documented. My inner child was unable to articulate this, however, and the result was a bunch of acting-out behaviours – often of the angry variety.
What is underlined as we watch Fleck break down at the revelation of his dark past, sobbing with this report in his hands, much like I did, is the grief and self-hatred that runs through all previous scenes in which he shows anger and violence. He doesn’t hate the world; he hates himself because his earliest life-lessons imprinted in him that he is unlovable.
As odd as it may sound, I felt incredibly seen and a physical sense of relief in my body during the several scenes where Fleck is punching, kicking and headbutting various objects around him in moments of losing self-control. Not because there is anything impressive about these immature acts, but because of the artistic skill of actor Jaquin Pheonix in displaying so beautifully the absolute sadness and self-loathing I personally felt that was hidden so well by my anger as a child and teenager.
Nobody seemed to understand that I wasn’t really trying to break the doors and walls I put holes into with my fists. I was trying to break myself.
I’m grateful for how Joker communicates the sadness that underlies so much of the violence in the world. It’s not a violent film for the glorification of violence, unlike previous portrayals of the Joker character. From beginning to end, we are feeling into the seriousness of mental health and trauma, particularly as it applies to men.
I think that some of the fears expressed by some critics of Joker around it providing fuel and inspiration for mass violence in the real world aren’t particularly realistic, but perhaps do speak to the fact that the film taps into something very deep and very real in the collective psyche of many men. In these times of ‘Incels’, MGTOW and men going on shooting sprees with what seems to be increasing frequency, Joker might just have touched a nerve we’ve been ignoring for too long.
And it’s not a nerve that needs cutting out like a root-canal. It doesn’t need to be documented and observed. It needs to be seen, soothed and healed – as recently demonstrated in the CCTV footage doing the rounds on the internet of a high school coach disarming a student-turned-gunman by hugging him.
And in the same way that nobody is responsible for my angry teenage outbursts but me, a key part of the healing of this collective wounding in men lies in personal responsibility. We don’t have to murder our mothers in order to grow into mature adult men, but we do have to take responsibility to become the man we want to become.
What I found myself feeling deep gratitude for during this film, was my children and a sense of purpose in serving others through my work. Because it’s these two things which are where my deepest sense of responsibility lies. And as pointed out by Jorden Peterson, it’s responsibility that men are craving. It’s responsibility that while possibly giving me a bit of a Superman complex, certainly prevents any remnants of my inner Fleck becoming the Joker.
Photo: Associated Press