It was raining on my day off so the cinema was an obvious choice. With Joker freshly released, and attracting controversy on a scale that seems unusual these days, I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.
For some people seemed to have taken an intense dislike to the film before it was even released. It will promote violence, some screamed on social media. Or worse, it will cause people to actually commit violence. As much as I deplore violence – and I realize how odd this may sound coming from someone with a self-professed love for horror and martial arts – I failed to see their point. Sure, some violence was to be expected. But surely violence in art is nothing new. And the argument that violent art will inspire real life violence is also getting a bit stale. The dreadful state of the world demonstrates that people hardly need the excuse of a conveniently released film to commit horrendous crimes.
In other words, I thought that if I could stomach Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with some reservations, I could manage this film. At least I could make the effort to actually go and see it, rather than base my verdict on a trailer that lasts less than three minutes.
My thoughts. I can see why people would not like this film. It is gritty, dark and extremely uncomfortable, which I loved but many people will not. There is some violence, though less than in your average horror film. What struck me most is the awkwardness of Joaquin Phoenix’s character. Forget all previous incarnations of this supposed super villain. There’s no glamour here, no Batman, this is a version of The Joker stripped right down to the bone. Quite literally, for Phoenix looks decidedly skeletal. If you loved previous interpretations of this iconic character, you may be disappointed by this one.
The film is not unproblematic. I for me don’t like the fact that it does virtually nothing to interrogate the connection between mental illness and violence. The Joker’s violence is caused by his mental illness, the film suggests, which is aggravated by the indifferent society he is part of. While there is a clear connection between mental illness and austerity, and some people with mental health conditions do commit violent acts, most of them do not. They’re not violent freaks. That’s a myth, and not an innocent one: it hurts actual people on a daily basis.
Although The Joker argues, in a rather overwrought speech near the end of the film, that his violence is caused (and perhaps even justified) by society’s indifference, this reasoning is flawed and narcissistic at best. For a much better account of how society ostracises those with mental health conditions, I highly recommend the documentary Anomalie, which approaches this important subject from a much more nuanced perspective. Different genre, for sure, and perhaps less entertaining, but worth your time if you claim to have any kind of interest in the topic.
Perhaps The Joker is not the right character to enable this kind of exploration, anyway. But I think it’s an important issue to address nonetheless. In fact, after watching the film I’ve come to realize that much of my own creative work focuses on characters with mental health conditions. I’ve never realized this before and this eureka moment in itself demonstrates that the film is capable of inciting more complex responses than “I hate this, someone ban this film!”. Based on the idea that it’s better to actively try and make the world a better place than moan about its imperfections – pretty much the opposite of The Joker’s outlook on life – I’d already started to explore publication opportunities for my own fiction prior to seeing the film. The film has consolidated these ambitions for me in ways I’m yet to explore fully.
The fear of many scaremongers seemed to be that Joker would glorify violence. If you walk away from the cinema believing the film indeed does this, you’ve not been paying attention. As Mark Kermode has said, The Joker as a character invites pity, not sympathy. His actions are not presented as positive or liberating, he is no hero or role model, and the film’s ending is disturbing rather than celebratory. The Joker is as evil as the society he evolves within. This is what makes the film feel so claustrophobic, yet so interesting to me: there is no escape from evil, it is in all of us. Perhaps there is a way out but the path chosen by The Joker is definitely not the one.
I actually found it quite refreshing to see a mainstream film that attracts so much controversy, divides opinion to such an extent, and seems to affect every viewer deeply one way or the other. I do hope it gets the critical discussion it deserves rather than a toys-out-of-the-pram dismissal. As far as I’m concerned, it’s anyone’s right not to go and see this film, or see it and decide it’s not for them. But I’m getting tired of calls to automatically ban films, or any work of art, that could possibly be offensive or simply not very nice. Joker is far from flawless, and its flaws deserve to be addressed, but for me its discomfort is its main asset. It’ll be interesting to see how its reception unfolds.
Image my own – My version of grittiness