The stated fear across multiple news articles has been that the film in some way encourages violence. It doesn’t.
The movie opens with a sequence of events that culminate with a clown being assaulted by five teenagers in an alleyway, his broken body left to lie amidst piles of rat-infested trash, the passers-by on the nearby street oblivious to his weeping. If that sounds impossibly bleak, strap yourself in, things only go downhill from there.
The clown in question is one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a former psychiatric patient with aspirations of someday becoming a renowned stand-up comedian. Unfortunately, the obstacles to such a thing ever happening are legion. As a result of a mental condition exacerbated by a childhood head injury, Arthur not only has difficulty in understanding what is funny to other people, but he is also burdened with a psychological tic that causes him to burst into maniacal laughter at inappropriate times.
With circumstances providing him little chance of seeing his dreams come true, Arthur spends his days as a mostly unsuccessful clown-for-hire, and his nights caring for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). The only apparent bright light in Arthur’s daily routine is the late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), with whom Arthur fantasizes of someday appearing onstage.
Thanks to the movie’s trailer, it’s not giving anything away to say that things spiral downward for poor Arthur. In quick succession he loses his job, discovers some unnerving facts about his family’s past from his mother, and learns that the government-sponsored psychiatric program that provides him with much-needed medication is being discontinued for budgetary reasons. Arthur’s situation is ripe for an explosion, and it finally occurs on a subway train when Arthur is confronted by three very wealthy, and very drunk, bullies.
And this is the point at which the movie enters the controversial territory that has generated headlines prior to its release. The stated fear across multiple news articles has been that the film in some way encourages violence. It doesn’t. What it does do, though, is ask its viewers to understand why violence erupts in certain instances.
This being a story about the origins of Batman’s greatest foe, the film is naturally set in fabled Gotham City. This time around, however, Gotham is a very thinly veiled version of New York City at the dawn of the 1980s. While the rich, epitomized in the movie by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and his family, sit safely in their mansions and penthouses, the poor are left abandoned to wallow in the literal muck of garbage-strewn crime-ridden streets, their cries for help seemingly falling on the deaf ears of those in positions of power.
Such a setting allows for a particular visual aesthetic that purposely calls to mind other celluloid tales of disenfranchised individuals who ultimately turn to violence. This includes not only Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), an obvious influence given DeNiro’s presence, but also even darker films such as Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) and William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). All these prior works detail the descent into madness by people in need of help who have been allowed to slip through the cracks, and Joker purposely joins their ranks.
Central to communicating the film’s key message is Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. Even if the film itself leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many viewers, and it will, Phoenix’s performance cannot go unacknowledged. He so embodies a man slowly slipping into inescapable insanity that one hopes the role had no lasting effects on the actor after filming ended. But he also brings enough humanity to the part that even though we know the larger legend of Batman dictates the story’s ultimate outcome, we still spend most of the movie hoping Arthur gets the support he so desperately needs.
So, no, the movie does not condone violence. Instead, it simply asks us not to be so shocked when violence is perpetrated by those who plead for our help and are left ignored. With so many of us claiming to worship a God who commanded us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and tend to the sick, is asking us to consider our own responsibility in such matters really such a bad thing? Whether one ultimately considers Joker a good film or not, its overarching question is one worth thinking about.
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