The Circle Line

This is not a joke

By Philippa Richardson

If ever there was a film of such darkness, of such a deep, devilish, downward spiral — this is it. If the title and context conjure images of bat mobiles and muscled heroics in capes, think again.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker

I haven’t winced through such a disturbing film in some time. As Arthur, a middle-aged man living with his mother and eking out a living as a clown, Phoenix is extraordinary. The simultaneous contradictions in his face alone are a masterpiece.

Arthur’s (or Joker’s) life began tied to a radiator. Being beaten by his mother. And by her boyfriend (his father?). Who also beats his mother. During a flashback to Arthur’s childhood we see her in a police cell visibly battered. The police officer recounts her neglect of Arthur. Who we learn is adopted. Arthur’s mother denies this; her boyfriend is his father, the millionaire Wayne, she says, whose mansion she has been cleaning, she says. Wayne denies it (and the beatings), saying Arthur’s mother is mad, delusional and dangerous. People believe him. He is rich and powerful. She is locked away in the local mental hospital.

Whatever the truth of Arthur’s genes (and indeed of his entire backstory given the tricksy final scene… but let’s leave that aside and take the film at face value), his story — neglected, abused and abandoned by his only family — could barely describe a worse world for a child to be trapped in.

We could mistake Arthur for a psychopath or a vigilante under-world hero. He is neither. He was described by the Guardian as “simply a pathological narcissist”. It’s easy to apply a simple label to a complex human. But there is nothing simple about Arthur; and there is nothing simple about people’s experience of abuse and the mental and emotional dysfunction it leads to.

Despite the chaotic backdrop of a social backlash by the resentful masses against the rich elite, this is a tale of the deterioration of an individual, not of society (although the individual makes the masses).

Arthur’s bizarre relationship with his mother sheds some light, signalling that Arthur hasn’t recovered from that horrendous childhood… A grown man-boy being told by his mother to cosy in with her in her bed to watch their favourite comedy show together. This may be misconstrued as touching devotion; but her grimy nighty, that musty bedroom, the scent of control, of apron springs not cut, of isolation and maladjustment to the world outside… it’s not the kind of devotion most would aspire to.

And then there is Arthur’s laugh; we see it early on in response to a stranger’s sharp words on a bus as she tells him off for entertaining her child. We all may resort to gallows laughter at times, to mask our underlying fear or pain — but Arthur takes this to a whole new level. His wracking laughter when hurt or threatened by others coupled with eyes that say the opposite cuts to the bone. It’s deeply ingrained in him, reflexive.

But it’s not a “condition” that makes him laugh inappropriately; rather it was the conditions he was born into that were inappropriate — and his way of coping, or all his mother allowed him to do, was to laugh — “Such a happy boy”, his mother always said.

His pain leads to more pain. With his every distorted gesture, his every dissonant laugh through dead eyes and choked voice, the world continues to deal heavy blows on adult Arthur. By kids down back alleys, by city bullies on trains, by famous and powerful presenters on the telly. Despite the gruesome dance moves he throws with his twisted emaciated body — the scene in the grim public loo is disturbingly mesmerising — we see Arthur spiral further into alienation, delusion, semi-existence. Unseen, unheard, unprotected.

He laughs on — “such a happy boy” — until he eventually says himself: “I haven’t had a happy day my whole life”. We believe him. But nobody else does. His boss doesn’t: he fires him. His mother doesn’t: she demeans him. As he empties and then climbs into his own fridge, we see him start to lose his grasp on his very existence.

Until finally Joker finds his first flash of power in the most tragic, most twisted way possible — through a steel barrel.

The ACE study

In 1995–1997 a group of psychologists and doctors in America carried out a groundbreaking investigation into Adverse Childhood Experience conducted by the U.S. health organisation Kaiser Permanente and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention — now famously known in professional circles as “the ACE study”. Being beaten and tied to a radiator would, pretty likely, classify as an “ACE”.

The ACE study revealed that traumatic life experiences during childhood and adolescence are surprisingly common — 66% of over 17,000 people reported some form of mistreatment. The study showed that for each adverse experience, the toll in damage later in life increases; adverse experiences show up later in personal suffering — socially, emotionally, financially or professionally, in physical and mental ill-health and suicide. As the child grows up outwardly, they don’t automatically “outgrow” their damage. Instead their traumatic experiences get lost in time.

Studies with equally life-shaking results have been carried out for smoking, obesity, heart disease — and the world stops, listens and stands up to instigate change. But not with adverse childhood experience. Why not?

People who Hurt People are Hurting

The admirable work of these and many other research psychotherapists and progressive psychiatrists willing to raise their heads and ask the difficult whys have shown time and time again that people who hurt people are hurting. That does not excuse their behaviour or make it ok. It does explain it. This is crucial — as it means prevention and cure; with the right professional help, hurt people can recover. Arthur is the first finding exemplified. Unfortunately he’s not the second.

We must offer a trained professional who can safely understand, empathise and listen – to the individual, to their experiences present and past, to find and witness their particular sources of pain; the reasons for their “illness”, the abuses they have suffered, the ACEs they’ve been dealt. This never happened for Arthur. He says it himself to his social worker — “Are you even listening to me?” until finally: “You wouldn’t get it.”

Because only when someone gets it can there be hope to “treat” successfully. Or perhaps that should read “hear” successfully — so that a voice can be truly heard not buried in a choked, half-sob hidden by a crippling, convulsive “laugh”.

Perhaps films like Joker will have more luck than the ACE study. For this is entertainment that challenges us to the core. Let’s hope it challenges our understanding too, and fuels further investment in research and therapy as well as in the box office.

Let’s hope that in future more children might be dealt a better hand sooner. A real ace. So they don’t end up the Joker.

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