Drawing upon the concept that “dark is deeper”, Joker offers a plausible and sympathetic origin to the classic Batman villain.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix
Right out of the gate, I feel a duty to tell you that this film made me feel monumentally uncomfortable. I felt like I was about ten seconds away from somebody in the cinema screen raining hellfire upon everybody else there. I was forced to rely upon my innate trust in everybody else’s mental stability while struggling to comprehend the message that Joker was attempting to convey.
Joker follows sad, lonely Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives at home with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) after having a period in a psychiatric facility. Amidst meetings with his therapist, Arthur also harbours a fascination both with single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and becoming a stand-up comedian that can appear on Murray Franklin’s (Robert de Niro) late-night talk show. Unfortunately, Arthur is in no way funny, and does not understand what makes a joke funny, instead working as a clown to advertise businesses and being constantly beaten down by society.
The gritty, rundown streets of Gotham (as well as his poor mental health and lack of access to medication) serve as the catalyst to turn meek, unassuming Arthur into a homicidal sociopath. He does not show remorse for his actions and is rather validated for his murder of three rich men on the subway by creating a movement within the city as many other downtrodden people also rise up against powerful figures, such as the Wayne family.
It is this sense of validation that makes the film’s social commentary somewhat confusing and unnerving. Are we meant to be on Arthur’s side and believe in what he is preaching, that a society that ignores those who are mentally ill and less fortunate will “get what you deserve”? Or that this is rather a cautionary tale to how this type of society creates these kind of people? Moreover, the fact that Arthur receives such widespread devotion for his sadistic acts seems to glamorise the violence that he has inflicted.
Ultimately, I suppose the source of my discomfort comes from how familiar and how real Arthur appears, especially in the wake of the myriad mass shootings that have occurred in America over the past decade. This reflection is in no way accidental, so it begs the question as to what the intent was of the creatives involved. What is the message that they are willing to convey? If it’s that a society that ignores the downtrodden creates its own monsters, then that’s almost far too sympathetic a view for these people. In fact, the presentation of this film lacking a clear voice or a decision on the Joker’s actions also opens up to the potential of making other people feel validated or seen by these choices and cause an upsurge of this type of violence.
It is really important when telling this type of story that you have a clear moral voice in the writing. There is seemingly no moral voice in this, and it relies upon the morals of the audience to interpret and judge it. Sure, to the morally conscionable audience members, it can be seen that this is nothing to be repeated or imitated, as the mental illness and the illogical reasoning can be observed. However, for those people in society who are unnervingly like Arthur appears in this film, that connection will be less apparent. The actions displayed will be taken at face value, and that is what is disturbing here.
The comments made by the director Todd Phillips only serve to make me more uneasy, “What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye-opening for me.”. Completely dodging the actual issue at hand, he turns the criticism upon what he has termed “woke culture” and has in fact indicated that that was why he stopped making comedic films, despite the fact that comedy is still entirely plausible while also being politically correct. When questioned by The Telegraph as to whether the film could inspire mass shooters, Phillips stormed off. It appears that the director views it as ridiculous that the thoughts and events depicted in film could be important and have impact upon the wider community and has failed to fully think through the content that has been produced here.
It is palpably obvious that the message of this movie is confused at best, and definitely was irresponsibly produced. However, that does not diminish the sterling acting of leading man Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Arthur with a beautiful physicality. Throughout the film, we can see the transformation of Arthur from a hunched and unassuming man to the swaggering, confident figure viewed at the closing of the movie. The cinematography and aesthetic of the 80s is also wonderfully achieved, and the period, gritty setting of Gotham is highly evocative. Without the trappings of an ordinary hero, however, Joker is unclear in its intent and the message upon the actions of its lead character, which makes viewing altogether more horrifying than any horror film. Why? Because Arthur Fleck isn’t fiction. There are thousands of Arthur Flecks. And now those Arthur Flecks have been empowered and justified in a wholly irresponsible and thoughtless way.