(there will be spoilers)
Let us all be clear – I am not the first to write about Joker. I am not at all original in this concept. But that’s okay. Neither was the film.
Leaving the theatre after Joker (after the long line for the loo, my God NPH please fix a cubicle), I had two prominent thoughts.
What the fuck?
Why the fuck?
It’s no secret at this stage that Joker is controversial at best. An internal struggle in the Guardian demonstrates this, with reviews ranging from a “daring reboot…brilliantly brought to life” (Brooks, five star review) to “the most disappointing film of the year” (Bradshaw, two star review). Obviously, this isn’t just contained within the Guardian. Everyone’s gone fucking crazy. It’s either the most beautiful depiction of poverty and mental illness you’ve ever seen, or dangerous and irresponsible propaganda designed by and for incels celebrating the violence of people who sit and wade in self-pity.
So, in the words of Oprah herself, what is the truth?
I can’t tell you that.
But what I can tell you is, as someone who watched the film in a quiet cinema in St Andrews, I felt very unsettled.
The film itself is beautiful. I cannot and will not deny that. Yes, there have been complaints of its derivativeness and the fact that if Scorsese directed it you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (arguments on originality pending). It is clever, the audience doesn’t need to be told what he is feeling. Contrast the initial hiking of the stairs to his apartment, the darkness of the first half of the film, to the light and colour once he is free of everything he perceives as hinderance. You feel your perception begin to shift, he is no longer someone to pity but rather fear, (which that is told almost entirely through the use of colour). Phoenix’s acting is bloody brilliant; the way he controls the character, shows pain in his eyes despite hysterical laughter coming from his mouth, you do feel yourself pitying him for a large portion of the film. He’s almost too good for the role, humanising a warped man no longer connected to reality by any kind of string.
But this, for me, was tainted by a constant sour taste in my mouth.
The faction of criticism that argues the film is irresponsible has a point. Take a look at the history of the Joker in media. The main group that has taken him in, accepted him as an icon of their own, is the incel. The Joker has become something of a role model to them, used as icons on incel forums, for making ‘Deep Points’ such as the one below. It has been this way since the days of Heath Ledger. He embodies those rejected from society, those angry to be in that position, those desperate to break into the world of Chads.
And yes, I highly doubt that when Finger, Kane and Robinson sat down in 1940, the words Chad and Stacey and the image of a sad man sat in his mum’s basement came to mind, but that is the association people are beginning to create with their character. For some reason, he is the rejected one, the one looked up to by these communities. The authors are dead. Long live the Incels.
And that is where the film’s irresponsibility comes in. The associations to incel culture are clear: sad lonely man living with his mother, rejected by everyone, mentally ill but no one listens to him, imagining an entire relationship with a woman he saw that one time in a lift and then mentally snaps when it transpires she actually doesn’t want him. I had a small look at incel forums before writing this, just to see if the criticisms were at all based in truth, and my God.
I get it, don’t generalise a group, and to be fair to the incels (not something I thought I’d be saying) there is a contingency saying that they didn’t associate the film with their community. But there is a larger part that at least partially have and agree with the premise. A mentally ill loner abandoned by society and treated like trash. Shooting anyone they didn’t like. And being widely and societally praised for it. Accepted. In this political climate, a congratulations to a white man feeling rejected and consequentially shooting people because of it seems wrong at best. That is why nine African Americans were murdered in Charleston. That is why twenty two people were murdered in a Walmart in El Paso. That is why screenings have been shut down due to violent threats, that is why literal servicemen have been warned about Joker screenings.
Art is about communicating a message, about connecting to an audience and telling a story. The director who claims woke culture killed comedy, who unforgivably made The Hangover movies, has decided his message he wants to communicate is “Feel rejected? Kill everyone who you think is the reason why. People will love you for it.”
And for a character—a franchise—that resonates so strongly with people whose entire identity is based around being rejected and being angry for that exact reason, to state this is irresponsible. It is dangerous. Why are we encouraging this? It may seem extreme, but if you feel isolated and angry, it doesn’t take much to push you one way or the other.
There is something to be said for the fearful backlash toJoker. Yes, it is poignant and makes some good comments on our society, but when it’s spoken through the words of someone so angry and resentful, so inclined to violence and wanting to be celebrated, there needs to be a point where we stop listening. There were brilliant ways to do this commentary, to do this film. Phillip’s Joker (2019) wasn’t one of them.