By Jo Longley
Please be aware, this article discusses violence, domestic abuse, and plot points from Joker.
I didn’t want to write this. I had every hope that Joker would redefine the role. That this movie wasn’t what everyone feared it would be: a deep dive into the subconscious of a lonely, sad man. It received an eight minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival; it couldn’t be just another voice asking, “Well, why did he do it?”
The film opens on a radio broadcast; Gotham’s garbage collectors remain on strike and the streets are filled with trash. Joaquin Phoenix is playing Arthur Fleck, painting his face for his clowning gig. He stops and sticks his fingers in his cheeks, pulls his face into a grimace, and then a beaming grin. A tear streaks blue eye makeup down his cheek.
My mother texts me at my new job. She is letting him come back to the house, just to talk. I close the door to my supervisor’s office, sobbing, and tell her that I need to go home. That my mother has married an abuser, and she’s about to let him come back. I don’t want to cry, but I can’t not. My supervisor won’t let me leave until I’ve calmed down. And when I do I go to Walmart and buy a bat and two deadbolts. I hammer the door knob off of my bedroom door and closet door. I put a lighter and a can of hairspray by my bed.
Arthur is mugged in his clowning getup. He curls into the fetal position, cradling his neck and taking the beating as his teenage assailants kick and giggle then flee.
My mother begs me to leave, so I sit in my car, parked in an empty lot behind her house. He convinces her to let him stay. He tells her he will leave again if she does even one more thing to upset him. She lets him stay.
Arthur’s coworker gives him a gun. Tells him, you can’t let these people walk all over you, or they’ll take everything. Arthur says, they were just kids, I should have let it be.
My mom’s best friend gives me a hunting knife. She asks, why she would let him back? I say, she loves him, and I leave it be. The knife sleeps under my pillow.
A tired but kindly social worker asks Arthur if he brought his journal. She reads aloud the line, I hope my death makes more cents than my life. She asks how he’s feeling and he says he felt better when he was in the hospital. He asks if she can ask to have his medications upped; she says, Arthur, you’re on seven medications. They must be doing something. He says, I just want to feel better.
A therapist who specializes in PTSD asks me, what are you wanting out of these sessions? A diagnosis, I say, I just want to know what’s wrong with me and the way I think.
Arthur sits with his mother watching their favourite late night TV show. He imagines he’s in The Murray Franklin Show audience and Murray puts the spotlight on him; Murray loves him, and wraps him in a hug, says he’d give anything for a son like him.
I cry in my bed, hugging the bat, holding the knife. My mother is staying with her best friend, but I’m in the house because he is and I will not leave him everything. I imagine my ex-boyfriend is there wrapped around me, not wherever he left me to be. The too-small hat he let me take is squeezing my temples and I feel my own pulse in my jaw like a drum beat.
Arthur is fired from his job, and kills three Wall Street men on the subway. They were harassing a woman, and his presence got in the way. They kick him while he’s down, but he shoots them. Later that evening, he bathes his mother and tells her not to worry, about money or about him.
I know I want to quit my job, but mother’s husband is gone for another stint, and she needs my rent.
Arthur, I have some bad news. The social worker again. They’ve cut funding, I won’t be seeing you again. You never listen, nobody ever listens.
If she’s wanting to put the house in your name, she knows he’s dangerous. I agree, but what can I do? When would you like our next session to be? I um and ah; I know I can’t afford any more of these.
Arthur discovers that his mother had an affair with Thomas Wayne, that he was the product. She was coerced then forced to sign the story into a NDA. I signed some documents, I couldn’t say anything. Besides, what would people say about me, about you?
I couldn’t say anything. I took my vows seriously, to not speak ill of my husband. I couldn’t say anything, until he did it to you.
Arthur steals his mother’s medical files from Arkham, hears his mother’s doctor accuse her, your boyfriend beat you, and then your son. He was found chained to the radiator. She says, I never heard him cry, he’s always been such a happy boy.
My mother and I sit in my car, and she’s hiding her sobs in the back of her throat. I tell her, you can scream. And she screams. She screams with a violence that you can only really know when it’s seeped into your bones. It’s a scream that tears the mucus out of her stomach, and soon she’s dry heaving onto my dash, then punching it, and screaming again.
Arthur suffocates his mother.
I rub my mother’s back as she stares out the window, watching for a man with a gun to pull into the house he calls home.
Arthur murders his old coworker.
My supervisor wishes me luck as I accompany my mother to court.
Arthur murders Murray, the man he wished was his father.
I kill him in my dream that night.
Arthur laughs to himself in his cell. The social worker asks, what’s so funny. You wouldn’t get it, and he laughs, and keeps laughing.
I kill him in my dream; I shove paper down his throat. Page after page, a whole book until he’s limp. I wake up crying—not because I’m scared of him, but because I’m scared of me.
When it’s all over and he’s gone, when I’ve watched him load his truck and laugh at my mother, and he and his caravan drive off into a world where I never need to see him again, I collapse. Then, suddenly, there are a million hands on me, rubbing my back and telling me it is over and I don’t need to cry, asking me to stop, telling me it is okay.
Arthur murders this man, Arthur murders that man, Arthur kills his own mother. Arthur is very sad and lonely and it all makes sense. Surely by now we know why he did it. Why men do this.
Joker is an excellently crafted story. It is written, directed, acted, and shot superbly. But the premise bores me: why do men do this? Hasn’t the answer been playing on repeat for millenia? By now, don’t we deserve a better question than ‘why do men do this’?
How do women not?