From the moment Todd Phillips’ Joker was announced, the film has been plagued with lengthy think-pieces, controversy and surprisingly…fear. After receiving an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, and subsequently winning the festival’s top prize, anticipation for the film only continued to grow. Yet despite the excitement, the Joker has also been the target of widespread criticism for its barbaric violence with some believing that the film could be a call-to-action for mass shooters. These claims have led to police officers across America showing up in force at multiple cinemas during it’s opening weekend.
Unfortunately, these claims are not completely unfounded. As some may remember, a mass shooting occurred in a Colorado cinema during a viewing of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, many of the victim’s families wrote a letter to the Warner Bros studio in efforts to express concerns of the wanton violence displayed in Joker and to persuade the studio to donate to gun violence charities.
Todd Phillips’ rendition of the popular comic-book villain is captivating to say the least. The story follows Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian suffering from an assortment of mental illnesses, and his descent into complete and utter madness. Fleck works as a rent-a-clown, lives with his sick mother and most importantly, suffers from a condition that has him screeching with laughter at the worst times. He’s uncomfortable, he’s terrifying and he’s sad.
Featuring 1980s Gotham, Joker is set against a backdrop of a city at its tipping point. Super rats rampage the city while poverty and crime have become severe epidemics. Fleck spends most of his time dreaming of stardom as a comedian but doesn’t seem to know how to make a joke. In one excruciating scene, Fleck participates in an open mic at a comedy show which ends as badly as you can imagine. In another scene, Fleck is robbed by some teenagers who proceed to beat the hell out of him. You know where this is going right?
It’s clear what Phillips is selling here. A mentally unwell man turns to violence after being unceasingly failed by society – it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. However, the inevitable plunge into utter psychosis is one that is empty at its core. While the film seems to try and make a social commentary on the state of humanity it manages to fall painfully short of its goal. Joker tries to hold itself up as an important piece of art but instead seems to be a justification for humanity’s worst impulses. Nor does the film bother to make clear that despite his ailments, Fleck is the one in the wrong. Instead, Phillips chooses to paint Fleck as a victim of society without holding him accountable for, well, anything.
Not to say that the film wasn’t good – it was. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is sure to clean up the Oscars. His enactment of Arthur Fleck truly encapsulates the character’s pit of despair and the boiling violence that lurks underneath. And the cinematography is excellent. Nonetheless, there was more that could have been done with the material. Mental illness could have been deeply explored but instead, its treated as a side-note. Everything is surface level. Nothing is profound. Combine that with the film’s lack of plot and Fleck’s constant misery simply becomes…boring.
With controversy following Joker everywhere it goes, it is hard to watch the film and not understand why people are so terrified of its content. While it’s hard to say the film encourages violence, it sure does justify it. As the United States tries to heal from its latest mass shooting, Joker seems to be reminiscent of your typical shooter – someone who feels wronged by society so much that they, in turn, must wrong society. Without offering any insight, Joker is not brave – it’s simply a copout.
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