5/10 Joker has been the talk of film media pretty much constantly since its Venice Film Festival debut Aug. 31 where it earned an eight-minute ovation and the Golden Lion. Between critical adulation and emerging worry that the film’s release would be marred by a mass shooting, the question on everyone’s lips was, is Joker a masterpiece or an irresponsible call to violence?
It’s both. It is extremely both.
Gotham City, 1981- The city is in the midst of a garbage strike and an apparent long-term depression, and the piles of trash lining the streets don’t look out of place against the thick crust of grime and graffiti that has flooded out of the alleyways and onto storefronts and office interiors. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian working as a party clown who takes seven medications for mental illnesses, takes care of his ailing mother Penny (Francis Conroy) in a cramped apartment. Fleck is mugged in the film’s first scene, which prompts one of his coworkers to give him a revolver. Fleck’s economic, personal and mental situations deteriorate over a period of weeks as class tensions in Gotham boil over, and when he eventually becomes violent, his killings spark a citywide anti-rich movement.
Joker is technically marvelous, a masterwork of craft in the service of a deliberately and dangerously provocative screenplay, a train wreck, but one that was choreographed and filmed with cutting-edge technology.
It’s worth noting that Joker was always going to be embroiled in some degree of controversy. The joker character has been asexual, homosexual and a rapist in various incarnations, but he’s never been unhappily celibate. Despite this, the online incel community has adopted Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character in The Dark Knight as a kind of mascot. The 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooter, who is associated with the character, has been hailed as an “incel hero,” and violence from this community has been on the rise in recent years. The things that people are worried about happening in Joker are things that have happened before.
I don’t want to spend too much time on why this community exists and why it’s turned violent, mostly because the answer is really complicated. For more detail, I highly recommend Contrapoints, a transgender Youtube star who’s doing some of the most accessible and important gender theory work going on right now.
Phoenix, who wanted to create as unsympathetic a character as possible, is absolutely spectacular, and his inevitable Oscar glory will be fully justified. Most of the best parts of Joker are simple B-roll footage of him being depressive and dancing or writing or just generally inhabiting his character set against Hildur Guðnadóttir’s threatening, unpredictable score. The film is also a master-level period piece. Many of its scenes are out in public, and its vision of 1981 Gotham City is painstakingly created for entire blocks at a time.
Joker is every inch the arthouse film that deserves to be talked about the way it’s being from an artistic standpoint. It’s brutally slow, both in the scene-to-scene pacing and in terms of the spacing out of plot developments. The real story is told through Phoenix’s body, to such a degree that a lot of people who aren’t accustomed to the style of storytelling might describe the entire film as boring.
This is probably the closest there’ll ever be to a live-action version of Mark Hamill’s Joker. Ledger’s version of the character, legendary though it may be, pulled and bent the material, adapting it brilliantly to the world of Batman Begins, which had been built specifically to house Batman. The world of Joker was built specifically to house Joker. Fleck’s climactic confrontation with talkshow host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) is a near-perfect take on how this character would introduce himself to the real world.
But where Phoenix set out to explore an alien character, writer/director/producer Todd Phillips seems to have set out to make the most damaging, inflammatory film possible for 2019. Joker is self-aware to the point of self-satire and clearly knows exactly what it’s doing and why it shouldn’t be doing it.
This expresses itself almost entirely through Phillips’ and Scott Silver’s screenplay. Many lines are vague enough that any viewer’s personal troubles and feelings could be transplanted onto them, but when things get specific, they are maliciously so. The film goes out of its way to push as many groups’ buttons as possible. In addition to Fleck’s obligatory “society” pun, at one point, he says in as many words “My mental illness is the real me,” which is a fallacious and harmful refrain commonly used by mentally ill people to justify not seeking help. Fleck and his character arc are also significantly queer coded, which feeds into Hollywood’s long history of portraying LGBT people as mentally ill, evil and violent.
There are also several elbowing political parallels. Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a stand-in for president Donald Trump, at one point says the city’s impovershed masses are “all clowns,” a moniker protestors adopt, echoing Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters as “deplorables.” However, the protestors’ sentiment is explicitly anti-rich, which echoes the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and more recent candidate Elizabeth Warren. So you’ve got rioters who are coded as both Sanders and Trump supporters protesting a candidate who’s coded as both Trump and Clinton. How’s that for mixed, messy metaphors?
What’s most disturbing is the way the film portrays violence as the only thing that staves off Fleck’s suffering and a route to get him the attention he craves. The thing to understand here is that the idea to commit mass violence spreads as a contagion similar to suicide, and much like the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why depicted its lead character’s suicide as having the desired effect, Joker very specifically depicts mass violence as having every possible desired effect by the perpetrator. After Fleck’s big coming out scene, the film cuts to a long, dramatic shot of his exploits dominating the news. More than once, he’s told directly that “the city is burning because of what you did,” which he responds to with delight.
There may not have been any violent incidents over opening weekend, but there will be more mass shooters in this country, and some of them will cite Fleck as an inspiration. It is unavoidable. You could argue that people need to understand that Fleck is supposed to be the bad guy and at a certain point people who don’t understand that just aren’t mature enough to go to the movies anymore, and you’d be right, but that doesn’t change the text of this film. Fleck is the ironclad protagonist and main character. The audience is forced to sympathize with him by the mechanics of the narrative, and those mechanics explicitly hold up his decisions as ones that lead to his happiness and success.
This is what irresponsible use of violence in cinema looks like. This is a two-hour long list of everything Phillips and company should not have done. The media stunts with the denials, the walking out of interviews, the banning news writers from the premiere, they were just that – stunts, some of them explicitly confirmed as such. For both film and marketing campaign, the scandal was the point.
Joker is being branded as a different kind of DC movie, but really this represents that branch of Warner Bros. doing the exact same thing it’s done for the past 11 years – chasing trends that were old before the cameras started rolling, never understanding why they strike gold or why they miss. The Dark Knight was dark and gritty and successful, so five years later they had Superman murder Zod and cry about it. Man of Steel celebrated wanton destruction and was poorly received, so its sequels made huge elaborate points out of the fact that destruction is a bad thing. Suicide Squad was edgy and about villains, so Joker is even edgier and about the villain that wasn’t in that movie nearly enough.
In spite of everything wrong with it, Joker is going to raise the level of mainstream cinema. It is unavoidable. It opened at $96.2 million, the best opening weekend in October ever and the sixth best opening of the year, and compared to the type of movies that normally enjoy this degree of visibility – MCU films, traditional DCEU films, Disney remakes, Conjuring-verse garbage – Joker is on a whole other level from a perspective of craft and storytelling nuance, and I really hope studios start pumping money into more avant garde films like this. This is meticulous, sharply designed production and an aspirational use of film language.
But “violence will make you feel better” is all that language is used to say.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.