A film review: How does Joker make us feel?

Film review by Lan-Hanh Nguyen.

Abstract: This article discusses the film Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, which had its first public screening on October 4, 2019. The paper attempts to refute a part of the media’s claim that the film is too dark and could incite violence. It invokes many film productions whose selling point is violence, a mass shooting incident, and some academic sources to demonstrate the absurdity of the media’s accusations. The article also discusses ominous resemblances between the society erected in the film and that of our own, suggesting that the viewers in general and the media in particular are uncomfortable because they have to face the ugly reflections in the mirror held up by Joker. The article concludes that, unlike the media’s claim that the film is provocative of savagery, Joker inspires what the world is in dire need of, thoughts and self-reflection.

Keywords: Joker, media, violence, public opinions, self-reflection
Header image “Joker – Joaquin Phoenix” by Hersson Piratoba is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

After the third time watching the film Joker – directed by Todd Phillips with the first public screening on October 4, 2019 – I still do not perceive the movie as provocative and dangerous as claimed by a part of the media.

Joker centers around Arthur Fleck, a man struggling to make an honest living in the falling city and society of Gotham. He works as a clown-for-hire during the day while trying to pursue a stand-up comic career by night. As Arthur gets beat up by strangers, dirty-played by his co-worker and lose his job, cut off of medications and therapeutic treatment needed for his mental condition, and ridiculed by his idol, he finally realizes that the joke seems to always be on him. With inherent savagery unlocked after an incident of self-defense manslaughter, Arthur spirals down on the murderous highway desperately yearning for visibility and recognition. Being ignored and rejected his whole life of an innocuous man, ironically his act of killing awards Arthur with attention, even though as a be-fanged monster: “All my life I didn’t even know I existed. But I do. People are starting to notice”. Arthur’s degrading into Joker is not a direct consequence of one single event but of aggregated and unceasing cruelty and alienation by an unsympathetic society where the poor and underprivileged are treated like garbage. The film characterizes a discriminatory capitalist society that benefits a minority of people with wealth and privileges whereas the massive rest of the people battle with poverty, unemployment and escalating chaos. Arthur’s untold joke “I hope my death makes more cents than my life” is emblematic of the crumbling capitalistic system in which life is cheap and unvalued. Within such a society, people are so disfiguringly crushed by the system that they turn ugly on one another.

That, however, is only the most obvious storyline that the movie indicates. In fact, Joker is much more complex and layered, which inspires polarized debates about what the movie really represents. This article discusses the movie in relation to the media’s suggestion that Joker is a dangerous movie.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, actor Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Arthur/Joker, walked out of the room after being asked whether he worried that Joker might “perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results”. Similar to The Telegraph, many other newspapers have also claimed that the film is too dark and violent and that it could incite violence among those “represented” by the movie.

A columnist of The Hollywood Reporter (Scott Feinberg) claims that the film is “deeply disturbing” and “could incite real-world problems.” Vox held a discussion in which four journalists shared similar opinions such as Joker is “possibly damaging, definitely irresponsible” and it could become “a cult favorite that forms a strident online community”. Likewise, an Independent writer wrote “I worry […] that some toxic guy will watch this film and think: “See? There’s nothing wrong with me. There is beauty in my chaos. I am the chaos. I am the beauty. The ends justify the means.” IndieWire also published a review pleading that Joker spoke “to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that ferment around them”. To demonstrate their contending of the film’s dark nature, The Daily Mail reported that some moviegoers walked out of the theatre during screenings of Joker claiming that the film was “terrifying” and “ultra-violent”. Compared to movies whose violence is a major selling point such as Deadpool, John Wick, Kill Bill, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, violence in Joker arguably is depicted more sparingly and not as intense. However, while many moviegoers recently enjoyed and even laughed at the highly graphically violent scene in Once upon a time in Hollywood when Jack Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) burns a girl alive with a fire-spewing weapon, some of Joker’s audience allegedly walked out of the theatre for its “brutality”. The media also accuse Joker of glorifying and romanticizing violence. What about John Wick? The deadly sexy Keanu Reeves playing the assassin adamantly faithful to a dead wife kills hundreds of people over the course of a 2-hour long movie. Certainly, no movie critics wrote that John Wick would encourage devastated widows to act violently. With reviews such as Joker is “going to turn the world upside down and make us all hysterical in the process” (IndieWire), one would wonder what it is about the film that sparks such a loud commotion?

Within the context of the US where several cases of mass shootings have taken place, there is fear that Joker might inspire another killing spree. The specific shooting incident that is recounted the most in this relation is the one in Aurora, Colorado that killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a screening of Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. James Holmes, the Aurora mass shooter, was rumored to have claimed himself as the Batman villain Joker. In fact, many movie theatres in the US have banned cosplays at Joker’s screenings. Undercover police have also been planted in many cinemas. For one thing, if technicalities are to be discussed, Holmes was wearing dyed red hair which, if anything, resembled the red-headed female superhero Mera in Aquaman much more than Joker with his famously green hair. Holmes later told his psychiatrist that he dyed his hair red because “red suggests bravery”. More importantly, George Brauchler, the Colorado juridical district attorney that prosecuted Holmes confirmed that the mass murderer never referred to himself as the Joker (Dever Post). He emphasized, “If it had been ‘The Avengers,’ he would have been there. If it were ‘Jurassic World,’ he would have been there.” His killing spree was never inspired by the villainy character. Therefore, the current media’s invoking the Aurora case to warn people to stay away from Joker’s screenings is, in fact, perpetuating the irresponsible attitude held by the press reports that spread the unfounded rumor in the first place.

Gotham” by soomness is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

To those who are still concerned about possible consequences of the film despite the other substantially more violent movies as discussed earlier, according to the American Psychological Association (cited in Ferguson et al., 2019), “for violent crime, a research base linking crime to violent media is lacking and disconfirmatory evidence too abundant to assert the presence of links”. If someone is looking for fuel for their rage, anything could inflame their anger, a film, a book, or even an untimely glance. As for the media’s claim that mentally unstable individuals might be inspired by the film to take up violent actions, research has confirmed that “most people with mental health problems do not commit violent acts, and most violent acts are not committed by people with diagnosed mental disorders” (Glied & Frank, 2014).

With part of the media so blatantly criticizing the movie and bluntly warning the public to ignore it, I cannot help but wonder, is all this media hype around Joker something else other than for the reason of audiences’ safety? After all, the movie constructs one of the main external makers of Joker as a vapid show host who doubly victimizes Arthur by humiliating him and then selling his very humiliation on his TV show. Perhaps this rings a bell about show business and the media in general. If the film depicts a society as insensitive and unsympathetic, the show host Murray Franklin is the centerpiece of such society who is idolized and emboldened by the people. As Franklin mocks Arthur on the stage, the crowd hungrily wait for punchlines to join in with his condescension and cruelty with their unconcerned laughter. This perhaps is reminiscent of part of the American show business and such business in other places. In fact, Joker’s star, Phoenix, was once a victim of such ambush for the sake of superficial entertainment when he was blindsided on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. Without the guest’s, Phoenix, knowledge and, doubtlessly, permission, Kimmel played footage of the actor cursing while being on the set of Joker on the live show. This act of prying into people’s personal life at the expense of their dignity isn’t rare on American talk shows.

As for general viewers, perhaps the “problem” of the movie is not that it portrays violence and disturbance, but that it humanizes and protagonizes the perpetrator. Unlike Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, Phoenix’s Joker has a name and a life plainly presented to the viewers. People feel comfortable watching Ledger’s Joker because he is depicted as a terrifying maniac who remains distant and mysterious. Ledger’s Joker kills only for the joy of destroying living things. Ledger’s Joker burns a mountain of money only to see the horror on the face of the greedy. Ledger’ Joker is an insane villain so unrelatable to spectators that he gives us a safe moral bridge to judge him from. Phoenix’s Joker, however, breaks that bridge and makes viewers squirm in our seats because he narrates our own lives for us, however, from an angle where we look ugly. From Joker’s narrative we are the ones who create evil. We all want to portray murderers as monsters with fangs just as Joker is sketched after his first kill on the subway. But horrors do not come from another world; horrors conjure up within ourselves and our society. Joker could be anyone we know whose suffering and eventually mounting to a vicious creature we might, knowingly or unwittingly, play a part creating. He might be the acentric quiet classmate whose name we don’t bother asking. He might be the neighbor whom we make a point of avoiding because he looks conventionally weird. We as viewers feel distressed because Joker unfolds in front of our eyes our own making of a monster.

The absence of a superhero also brings the film closer to the real world we are living in. Joker’s story depicted as separated from Batman leaves the audience hero-less to face humanity not represented by selfless heroism but ugly selfishness and cruelty. The film holds up a mirror that reflects our contemporary society where most of us are too busy and maybe too self-absorbed to be concerned about our fellow human beings. We might have to question ourselves: who is the real villain? Hero-less, we are left to face Arthur’s cry for “some warmth and decency”. In the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight, the Joker is proved bitterly wrong believing that humankind is intrinsically evil when he makes them choose between murder and death, kill or be killed. Goodness is overwhelmingly epitomized in this movie even when death is only a ticktock away. Humanity is preserved even by the most unreliable group of mankind, felony criminals. Joker, however, does not juxtapose the malevolent Joker with the heroic Batman and the unyielding kindness. Instead, it’s the downtrodden Arthur who is confronted with indifference, cruelty, and trickiness. When he tries to be kind and cheer up a child, the mother barks at him. When he has nothing but respect and admiration for the successful show host Murray Franklin, he ridicules and humiliates him. When he reaches out for truth and love from who he thinks is his father, the noble and honorable Thomas Wayne assaults him and demeans him. It is understandably uneasy to watch an established order of right and wrong challenged, with good and bad so disquietingly ambiguous. The movie sets a bleak tone not only because it tells the story of a sad mad man who turns into a serial killer but also because the world seems to be enveloped with the gray area between the good and the bad.

Artworks are interpreted in many unpredictable ways whether intended by the artist or not. A good work of art should make us think. It is even better if it inspires us to reconsider our assumptions and conventional ways of thinking. Joker is a successful work of art because it kindles high emotion as well as intellectual energy. It meaningfully deals with real social problems which give people a chance to question normally taken-for-granted values and challenge our own ideological positions. As Joker expresses his frustration about a system arbitrarily determining funniness, righteousness, and value (Who knows Joker is such a Foucauldian?), we perhaps should also ponder how our society works to construct the world views, personalities, and behaviors. I believe a movie could be interpreted in various ways and should not be blamed if some viewers decide to view it from a dark light.

The film might ask for sympathy for a man who is bullied by society, but it certainly does not condone murder. If the audience might catch glimpse of ourselves, our families and friends in lonely poor Arthur, we do not identify with the Joker in his colorful costume and clown make-up. The film makes sure of that. When Arthur has his identity as Joker announced on the Murray Franklin show, symbolizing his complete transition into madness, the character becomes unmistakably comic. His voice becomes shrill, his facial expressions dramatized, and his body unexpectedly popping a dance after shooting the show host twice! Who would relate to and sympathize with such madness? I dare say no one in their right mind and heart would. At this point, the audience can see that Arthur Fleck has become the Joker, just as estranged and unrelatable as the 2008 Joker. The media’s indication that Joker is a rally for sympathy for a murderer is, thus, baseless. If the film is provocative in any way, it is of thoughts and self-reflection, which the world is in need of more than ever.


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Scott Feinberg https://twitter.com/scottfeinberg/status/1171527266616000513?lang=en

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