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As long as there continues to be acts of domestic terrorism in Western countries, there will continue to be blame on video games, film, and music that supposedly encourage these acts. Despite statistics and psychological studies proving otherwise, this subject has come to the fore again with the new release of Joker (2019).

Joker is the supposed origin story of the famed Batman villain. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill clown, who has aspirations to be a stand-up comedian. Arthur lives in squalor, caring for his frail mother Penny (Frances Conroy), while he is continually bullied in public and beat up. The film looks at his descent into further madness and into his inevitable snap.

The film is as un-comic-book-like as you can get; in fact, the film works perfectly fine on its own were one to strip away all of the Batman mythology. Director Todd Phillips, more commonly known for his work in The Hangover trilogy, has made a deft switch into this dramatic character-study of the mentally ill and the disenfranchised. Phillips’ choice of a superhero villain as the backdrop for his film seems to be more of a psychological challenge for viewers, as he goes about humanizing the toils of Fleck, all the while knowing of his inevitable fate in villainy. This causes the audience to delve into the grey area of regarding Fleck with a favorable or repulsive light. In the end, it seems that Phillips revels in this confusion, going very well with the film’s theme of the liberating effects of chaos and anarchy.

Joaquin Phoenix has been impressing movie-goers with his every onscreen performance, from his repulsive Commodus in Gladiator (2000), to his conflicted Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), and even his sweet Ted in Her (2013). In Joker, Phoenix goes a step beyond, bringing us into the deranged world of Fleck, in a performance unlike anything seen in the past decade. The intensity with which Phoenix inhabits Fleck, along with a surprising order and method to the chaos and unpredictability of his character is what essentially structures and makes the entire film.

The film has been criticized already by many (a lot of whom haven’t even seen the movie yet) as a danger for inciting violence. The film does take on the perspective of the disenfranchised white men, and how they end up in a descent towards violence in order to recapture their dignity. But the violence in Joker is not glorified by any means, and is few and far in between, thus giving more impact and shock to their depictions. The triumph and dignity that Fleck finds with the use of violence is not so much an endorsement as it is a diagnosis of the thinking that many white supremacist terrorists have, when carrying out their horrors. Just as Triumph of the Will (1935) brings us into the mindset of Nazis, Joker looks at the world from the perspective of the mentally ill and emasculated population that is showing their anger visibly in today’s world. However inaccurate or dangerous Triumph of the Will was, it was important in that it allowed us to look into what the thinking of a Nazi was like; and in order to heal as a society one needs to acknowledge where the wounds lie and their cause. Joker is not so much a danger as it is a tool opening a debate and analysis of the roots of a repressed emotional populace. By blanketing a definition of “evil” to certain forms of thinking we are not helping in the reconnection and “enlightening” that needs to happen; instead we’re invalidating certain ideologies and ignoring their real emotions and feelings. This is exactly the problem that is addressed in Joker and serves as a cautionary tale as to what will happen if we continue to shun this part of the population.

In the end, Joker triumphs in many cinematic ways with one of the best performances put to screen. But the undue criticism and warnings that have been directed at it are completely unfair; further analysis and thought shows that Joker’s existence is an important milestone and push towards a reconciliation in America (and elsewhere) that desperately needs to happen.



About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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