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Joker review - a plea for more heart in society

PSW reviews the film everyone's talking about and finds many themes relevant to social work...

Joker social work depression loneliness isolation

Professional Social Work magazine review - 11 October, 2019

Life, it’s said, is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think. And this is also one of the central themes of Joker, a surprisingly arthouse Hollywood film dealing with distinctly un-Hollywood subjects like depression, loneliness, childhood abuse, disability, social isolation and many other issues close to social work. Indeed, one of the characters in the movie is a social worker.

In one particularly grim scene during his descent into evilness the Joker, in a spellbinding performance by Joaquin Phoenix, verbalises his own perspective shift from the tragic to the comic (comedy, we all know, is often a coping mechanism for unhappiness).

Because of his fleshed out back story, we actually feel sympathy more often than revulsion toward the Joker. A testimony to the importance of hearing people's life stories, another feature of good social work. It helps too in the movie that Phoenix plays the part with such translucency and rawness we feel we are able to see right through into the heart of his character’s troubled soul.

Viewing Joker on mental health day added to its poignancy. For in many ways, it is a reminder of how wrong things can go if we don’t look after people. The Joker isn’t portrayed as a bad person, at least not at the beginning, but a product of bad things that have happened to him and continue to happen to him. He tries to seek help, with weekly visits to his social worker, but the service is cut due to funding being withdrawn - surely a commentary on austerity. They don’t care about you and they don’t care about me, says his social worker.

Ultimately, of course, the Joker is a comic book villain in a superhero fantasy and any thoughts of this as a Hollywood I, Daniel Blake must be tempered by that. But while lacking Ken Loach’s everyday realism, there are comparisons to be drawn in that both films deal with the ‘little person’ at the mercy of cruel brutalising systems and power imbalances at the expense of humanity. Michael Moore sees this movie as a commentary on Trump’s America and the forces of globalisation that leave many destitute while the “filthy rich just get richer and filthier”.

Translated into the UK social context, the film could be seen as an indictment of the kind of austerity-fuelled policies of the last decade that have led to a rise in homelessness, mental distress, insecure work and poverty.

On yet another level, Joker also has something to say about the unsettled, divided and troubled times we currently live in, where such insecurities have fanned the flames of populism. Scenes in which frustrated citizens (perhaps the 'left behind'?) hold the demonic Joker up as the answer to all their problems are surely a statement on the faith put in Trump, Brexit, Boris and any other quick-fix to big problems offered by political demigods. No doubt the irony of comedians seeking political posts - and in the case of Ukraine even succeeding in getting elected into power - was not lost on the filmmakers. 

Director/writer Todd Phillips may well have had this in mind. He may also have had in mind the mass protest movements that have sought their own easy answers. For are not the clown masks worn by the Joker’s followers reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes masks donned by anti-globalisation protestors in the aftermath of recession?

It’s this multitude of layers that has seen Joker hailed as a movie for our times. At its heart, though, it is a basic plea for heart. For social systems that do not ignore and further outcast people. For us as human beings to look after each other and recognise the pain, sorrow and struggles of those around us instead of turning away in relentless pursuit of individual happiness.

By Shahid Naqvi

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers