04 October 2019 22:51
Note: contains spoilers for Joker Despite Todd Phillips' best efforts, the conversation around Joker hasn't died down. The movie is now out in cinemas, which means the conversation will only get wider as more and more people see Joaquin Phoenix's take on the role. Seemingly inseparable from any critique of the movie is how Joker reflects, and shapes, our view of violence – particularly violence perpetrated by mentally ill white men. There is a poignant moment in Joker where the camera zooms out on Arthur Fleck's comedy journal-cum diary. Amongst the disturbing doodles and pictures of naked women (yep) he scrawls: "The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't." Anyone who has lived with mental illness can likely relate to this.
For the most part, mental illness is invisible: your desk mates may not know about your anxiety, your landlord may not know about your OCD. Having to navigate the world daily with all of these internal wheels spinning off their axles can be exhausting and frustrating. The world has given up on Arthur. The government shuts down the outpatient psychiatric centre he visits and he is left without his meds. This is a very real problem people face every day. The world of Gotham City is presented entirely through Arthur's world view – a view which is, needless to say, warped. Phillips' choice, and it was a choice, not to show Arthur through any other lens prevents the audience from getting any context for his behaviour. Part of what made previous iterations of the Joker, in particular Heath Ledger's, so terrifying and compelling was his unpredictability. No one was safe from his scatter-shot approach. It wasn't even about revenge – Joker was violent simply because he could be. Heath Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight Warner Bros. But Phillips' Joker seeks to give Arthur a background, which – whether Phillips intended to or not – also explains why he is how he is. And, as Alan Bennett writes in The History Boys: "to put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained then it can be explained away." He even goes so far as to give Joker a moral compass. When his former coworkers Randall and Gary visit, Joker kills Randall in a bloody, close-up fight. But he lets Gary go. Because Gary was nice to him. So, Joker only kills people who have wronged him – the three men on the subway who attacked him, Randall who bullied him, and eventually Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who humiliated him. He lets Gary live. What does that say about why Joker does what he does? Related: Joker review: Joaquin Phoenix excels in unsettling, bleak and flawed DC offering Nowhere in the movie are we treated to the full picture. We only see things through Joker's eyes. The anger he feels at his mother for lying, at his potential father for rejecting him, at the world for abandoning him. We almost never see other people looking at Joker going what the actual hell? The closest we come is when Arthur breaks into his neighbour Sophie's (Zazie Beetz) apartment. In his head, he's been having a relationship with her for weeks. In reality, they had one conversation in their elevator. The terror in Sophie's voice, when she discovers him in her living room, is the only reminder that outside of Joker's head his actions might be taken differently. There is also Murray Franklin, who confronts Joker on live television. He calls out his self-pitying rationale for what it is: bloodlust. Joker, unable to accept this critique, shoots Murray in the face. The co-stars sitting next to him and everyone in the audience are unharmed. There is almost an argument for Joker killing Gary, even Sophie and everyone in the studio audience – because that is precisely the kind of violence that you expect of unhinged supervillain the Joker. Instead, Phillips makes him a real-world serial killer who murders the same kind of person (his bullies) over and over again until he can reach the actual target of his murderous fantasies. Which, arguably, he can never do. Director Todd Phillips uses Joker's mental illness as a shortcut to explaining his violence. See what happens when you don't have the right checks in place? Thus Joker also frames Fleck as the inevitable outcome of what happens when the government fails its most vulnerable citizens. But Joker isn't the most vulnerable and his need to sate his murderous urges is not the unavoidable consequence of untreated mental illness. Warner Bros. We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article. Philips tries to smooth over the inherent privilege Joker has by having his psychiatrist, a black woman, say: "They don't care about you, or me, people like us" and thus draws a direct line between Joker and her struggle as a woman of colour and a mental-health professional in a system that undervalues her. Discussing the character, Phoenix told IndieWire: "It's hard not to have sympathy for somebody who experienced that level of childhood trauma: an overstimulated medulla looks for and perceives danger everywhere. For someone in that state, does it mean his actions make sense or are justified? Obviously not. There's a point where he crosses the line where I am no longer able to stick by his side." We don't disagree. However, where Joker falls is that no one in within the movie offers this sentiment. No one says "Arthur, mate, you've crossed the line," except Murray, and that's only after he mercilessly mocked Arthur on national television. Twice. Niko Tavernise Warner Bros. By the end, Joker is literally lifted up by the masses and poised as the figurehead of an anti-establishment revolution. In this moment, in Gotham City, Joker's violence is validated. And though Phillips' denies Joker glorifies violence, it's at least a conversation that he is now apparently willing to embrace. Why else would he make a movie unless he wanted it to become part of the cultural conversation, and thus its zeitgeist? Opinions might not all sway with him, but there is always room for conversation. That's what freedom of speech is about, after all. Joker is now playing in cinemas Digital Spy is launching a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox. Want up-to-the-minute entertainment news and features? 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