Well, it’s the most controversial film of the year amongst film critics, journalists, and those in the public sphere. Audiences seem to be loving it. It is breaking records, and has very high audience ratings everywhere you look. Yet, reporting shows that the demographics of the audiences going to see this film are largely white males, and this audience is precisely who some believe could be inspired by this type of film. At least, that’s one of the reasons for its controversy.
If you look back at the history of film violence inspiring reality, it is interesting that the movie this film most closely emulates was in fact a catalyst for violence. It was reported in 1981, when the Reagan assassination attempt took place, that John Hinckley drew inspiration from the Travis Bickle character that Robert De Niro played in the 1976 classic ‘Taxi Driver’. Now, I don’t believe that if Hinckley has never seen that film he would have never shot at the President, but he pointed to the film as inspiration. And given the fact that ‘Joker’ plays out in a similar manner, it seems fair to worry that an iconic character like this could inspire similar violence.
You can also look at the Aurora, Colorado shooting when ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ came out and see that there was already a level of Joker inspired violence that left many without their lives. The killer in that shooting was said to have dyed his hair to fashion himself like the Joker. However, I must note that I saw little inspiration there. Still, the pain and loss of those families is real. So, if there is worry that this character is an inspiration for violence then why should we make a film that clearly depicts this violent character with sympathy?
There is even an argument that director Todd Phillips glorifies the violence that is on display in this film and that the film inadvertently makes an excuse for cold blooded murder. This film is seen by many as dangerous for this fact. Then there’s the mental health criticism that people with mental illness are actually less likely to commit murder and this film turns mental health into the catalyst. Or just the simple argument that the film is disingenuous because it promises something along the lines of a comic book origins story and is instead a horror film of sorts. The problem there being that the film fits into the world of exploitation and it’s cynically using the Joker name to make a bunch of money out of a story that has little to do with the comic books.
I’ve even read articles where film critics argue about whether the laughing disorder that Joker has in this film is an embarrassing exaggeration of a mental disorder or if it is an expression of an actual neurological disorder known as the pseudobulbar affect. Something that my family would be well inclined to take offense to (my wife and children suffer from mental health afflictions) if it was done in an offensive way. However, the problem with this controversy and all the others is that they just don’t stand up to scrutiny very well.
The film is most certainly a sympathetic look at this character of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and the chain of events that lead him to a series of murders. This character lives in Gotham and eventually becomes the iconic Joker we have all known for most of our lives. Those are the simple and indisputable facts. Where things get gray is in the way you take the events you witness. I personally felt deeply troubled by the events that take place in Arthur’s life and I was deeply sympathetic to his plight. The first killings he commits come off as mostly self defense and him partially just killing a guy to prevent himself from getting in trouble. Then he kills again out of sheer pain and deep betrayal.
It’s clear he is deeply disturbed and for most of the film I thought the laugh was a fictional version of Tourette’s, but the film later reveals his condition was likely caused by some severe trauma that I will not disclose. I also must pause to note the Phoenix’s performance is nothing short of miraculous.The moments where he is fighting off the nerve induced laughter is a tricky sell, but he delivers in a big way. It’s heart wrenching stuff. Which is partially why it’s so hard to watch him get darker and darker. Honestly, this argument whether the movie glorifies violence seems crazy to me. This film is a horror movie. It is horrific to watch Arthur turn into the Joker, but when he does it is a clear cut break with reality and morality. I knew the moment that he had become a cold blooded murderer. It wasn’t just his trauma or his potential mental illness. It was murder.
The entire tale has a looming sense of dread throughout. This is a tragic look at violence, poverty, mental illness, class warfare, and (from a purely comic book perspective) how Gotham city might have become a place where all these villains we’ve bared witness to might fester. It seems very clear, by the end of this film, why a man would put on a cape to save the city or why the League of Shadows would want to burn it to the ground. It’s also not hard to imagine a world filled with poverty stricken white guys seeing this Joker figure as a symbol for injustice and how that might lead to riots. The point being, that there is something about this film that makes the whole Batman universe feel a little more tangible and tied to our own world.
Beyond that, this film is a character study. What director Todd Phillips really seems to be doing here is illuminating the stereotypical story of the serial killer or the school shooter. For decades now, we
have heard that serial killers and school shooters are typically poor, white, momma’s boys. They usually have absent or abusive fathers, and they often have suffered severe trauma or bullying. We see them in real life when they have become the monster, but the monster gets made somehow. This film uses the iconic character of the Joker and the inspiration of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ to try illuminating that stereotypical killer for the viewership of audiences. We can argue all day about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s what this film is trying to do, and it does it brilliantly.
I was glued to my seat for two straight hours. Riveted by every twist and turn this film threw at me. I questioned certain things, but it seemed that the reality of what I was watching take place was even a thing that I was meant to question. Joker has always been an unreliable narrator, and that’s clearly the cases at a few times here. Some even think the whole thing might be in his head. I’m not sure whether I buy that, but it’s certainly possible. The bottom line is, Joker is a tale you will not soon forget. It is striking, horrifying, and something you can’t take your eyes off. Which is why it is a don’t miss movie event.
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