Todd Phillips' Joker is a complex movie. As we've already seen, it's also a divisive movie. Some question the thought process and ideation behind the movie, citing rampant gun violence and the rise of the "incel movement" as reasons it shouldn't have been made in the first place.
Arguably though, art is designed to provoke, and in that regard, Joker sure will provoke — but whether the dark message of the movie will have a negative impact on culture, and the rise of violent young men, remains to be seen. To tease out the film and its dangerous potential, Gizmodo Australia's Leah Williams and Sarah Basford sat down to discuss their thoughts.
Joker is probably all you're going to hear about over the next few weeks as we edge closer to its Australian release on October 3. It's brutal, it's unrelenting and it's destined for contentiousness. But one of the more interesting features of it is how it fits into the character's lore, or doesn't, rather.
Joker recounts the origin story of prolific Batman villain, the Joker, who’s had a long and often turgid history in comics. He’s been portrayed as a sociopath, a hyper-intelligent madman and, occasionally, a tragic figure.
Todd Phillips' film portrays Joker as a mix of all three, and follows a man named Arthur Fleck (potentially named after former Batman, Ben Affleck), as he struggles both with mental health issues and the descent of society into crime and violence. It’s a harsh film, and one that deals with the gloomy reality of the fictional Gotham City. It’s well put together, and tells an intriguing tale, but it isn’t without its flaws. Here’s what we thought.
Sarah Basford: I've got to say, while I respect the movie is well-directed, flawlessly written and the acting is impeccable across the board, I can't say I actually enjoyed it as viewing experience. It was unrelenting, soul-depleting and while I like to think of myself as quite desensitised to graphic violence in films, I felt every gun shot, every stab.
Leah Williams: This is the part where I argue that that’s the point — it’s not supposed to be pleasant viewing. It reflects the reality that Arthur is living in, and it’s meant to make the audience understand how a man can become so twisted and violent himself. But I definitely agree, the violence was a lot. It also asks the audience to participate in this violence in some way. Because by their nature, films are engaging. The movie wants you to become involved in the story, and at least share some empathy with Arthur.
It’s part of the reason why I question the intentions behind the film. Should it have been made in the first place? I think that’s a valid question, and it’s why a lot of people think it’s a dangerous movie.
Sarah Basford: That’s an interesting point. It works almost like misery porn but instead of the character triumphing into good, he descends further into chaos but reigns as king in his own mind. I think that's where the danger lies because the movie almost makes you feel bad for him and you're pleased he finally finds his place, but that's only through extreme violence.
Saying that, I'm still not a big believer of the moral panic over whether films, and video games, can really drive people to do violent things but I still think directors need to accept a level of responsibility when it comes to the film's crucial message. For example, don't make it look like doing all those disturbing things is a good thing in the end. I think Todd Phillips manages to avoid that because for me, after Fleck’s last shocking act, any remnant of sympathy I felt drained away.
Leah Williams:I think Joker is a powerful movie in many respects, but I definitely doubt that it really needed to exist. As a film, it's artful. Todd Phillips does an incredible job portraying the breakdown and eventual fall of Arthur Fleck, the man that goes on to become the Joker. And countless Joker origin stories have been told in comics across the ages, but this is the first time I feel like someone's been able to successfully articulate what makes the Joker so interesting, as a character.
He's a cruel mirror of the worst parts of humanity. He's every cruel intention, every painfully unfunny joke, every awkward moment and every violent thought. To say that this Joker was a monster would be too simplistic — he's human, and that's what makes him terrifying.
But the movie does go to great lengths to ask its audience to identify with the Joker and relate to his struggles. And that's where I draw the line. The Joker shouldn't be a relatable character, and in asking its audience to feel even a moment of sympathy for him, as in the first half of the film, is to encourage dangerous behaviour in people who'll read too far into the movie.
Sarah Basford: Speaking to some people who saw the film with us afterwards, they definitely felt sympathy for him throughout it and told me it’s because of how the movie sets up his tragic life. It feels like he has no chance of ever integrating in society as a regular citizen, he’s always on the outside looking in.
When you find out about the supposed truth of his adoption and subsequent neglect from his adopted mother, you naturally have to sympathise with his life. Someone even told me they felt so sorry for him. To them it was only natural he would react the extremely violent way he did later in the film.
Leah Williams: I think one of the things that most disappointed me about the film is that it had the potential to make a really powerful statement about mental health and the system that supports those in need.
Early on in the film, Arthur’s therapist tells him that funding for her employer has been cut, and that therefore Arthur won’t receive the medication that he needs. This kicks off a spiral that leads to Arthur’s descent into violence, but I don’t feel like the movie properly addresses it.
They obviously touch on class issues throughout the film’s narrative, particularly in Arthur’s interactions with Thomas Wayne and Bruce, but they seem to push aside that narrative in favour of sudden and shocking hyper-violence. In the end, these serious issues are just pushed aside for the sake of window dressing, and for pushing the audience to acknowledge Arthur as a broken and mentally-ill man.
Sarah Basford: Another interesting aspect of the film for me was how unreliable Arthur was as a narrator. After it was revealed he was actually never romantically involved with Zazie Beetz's character, Sophie Drummond, I questioned how many of the other scenes actually transpired. It's only realised that the relationship between was made up in his head after he trespasses into her apartment and she responds with pure fear.
It made me wonder did his clown friend ever actually give him that gun or was that fabricated so Arthur could justify, in his own wicked way, killing him later in the movie? I think it’s safe to say he killed Murray Franklin because that was filmed on live TV so we have a perspective outside of his narrative. But everything else without outside sources, for me, could be thrown into question.
Leah Williams: That’s another important point, that the events of the film, in the end, may not have even happened at all. The narrative starts in a hospital, and it ends in a hospital. Maybe Arthur never left? But in the end, it’s easy to get bogged down in the meaning or meaninglessness of the film. I think it does a solid job of portraying the mental breakdown of an already broken man, but maybe a not-so-good job of really understanding the weight and importance of such a tale.
Joker is a film that’s hard to watch. Narratively, it’s brilliant, and as a film, it’s extremely well directed. I just think that the thought process behind the creation of the film is flawed, and it’s very arguable that it should’ve been made in the first place. After all, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and as a reflection of the world we’re currently living in, its message is harsh and extremely nihilistic. What are your final thoughts on the film?
Sarah Basford: I still rate it as a good film and I think most should give it a go but I’ll say that with a caution. I saw it after a long day of work so, perhaps, I had a lower tolerance than usual but it left me feeling numb and depleted. Movies shouldn’t always make you feel good but this is definitely the first time in a while I’ve had such a strong response to a movie and it wasn’t for the best.
What I will say is that while I didn’t immediately enjoy it, I continued to think about it for the next few days and kept finding things I’d initially missed in the shock of confronting violence. That’s what good cinema should do for audiences, I just wish it could do that without giving me nightmares.
The Joker is having a strange moment right now. A DC icon, one of the most charismatic villains to ever to grace comics and screen, potential incel idol and an incitement to violence? In 2019, he occupies all of these cultural positions, which can make parsing the character himself somewhat hard to parse. This documentary, running down the history of the villain, is a solid start.