Rarely do I see a film and think, “This should never have been released.”
Walking into New Haven’s trusty Bowtie Criterion Cinemas — objectively the most lax movie theater in the world, where I’ve brought in whole meals to see a movie with no trouble — I was asked to open my bag. I had heard about threats of mass shootings in movie theaters caused by this very film. In 2012, a gunman opened fire on a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 people. This sparked fear that something like this would happen for “Joker,” a new film directed by Todd Phillips. Yet when I saw the movie, it wasn’t the violent subject matter that put me on edge. It was everything else.
“Joker” is a film drowning in pessimism. Throughout the movie, we are told that the world is garbage and that people are garbage. One of the first scenes features the fictional city of Gotham piled high with trash bags. We meet Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, in what looks to be the underbelly of the city. We see him at the place where he works, a shop called Haha’s. Haha’s rents out clowns, such as our protagonist. The radio blares in the background, the broadcasters discussing the trash problem in Gotham. Later, when Fleck is on the job as a sign twirler, some punks steal his sign and he goes chasing after them into a dumpster alley. The kids gang up on him, destroying his sign and kicking the living shit out of him. During a scene towards the end of the film where Joker confronts his former childhood hero, Joker claims that the world sees him as a “loser” and “treats [him] like trash.” With references to trash at the start of the film that become integrated into scenes where Arthur is wronged, we are primed to see the world as he does: a place filled with garbage.
What was most painful to see were not the gruesome murders — which required a truly twisted mind to conjure up — but the ugly representation of people with mental illness. Arthur has an undefined mental illness which causes him to have laughing outbursts and hallucinations. Society, for the most part ignores him, acknowledging his presence at times only to ridicule his behavior. He takes multiple medications and sees a government-mandated therapist, each of which do nothing to make him feel better. All of this culminates in Arthur taking his anger out on the world by killing people that have — in his eyes — mistreated him.
In this way, the film demonizes mental illness. It casts an unfair portrayal of people with mental illness as lost causes, with no amount of therapy or medication being able to help them. It says that people with mental illness have no control over themselves and are dangers to society.
With Joker’s mental illness depicted in a way that alienates him from audiences, I expected the filmmakers to provide Joker with some redeeming quality. Throughout the film, opportunities to discuss social issues — namely class struggle — arise. Each time I assumed the filmmakers would take the chance to turn Joker into a leader of social change, but each time, they neglected the opportunity. It almost feels as if they actively avoided covering the subject. When Joker murders three finance bros, the downtrodden people of Gotham see this as a call to action to rise against the rich. However, when asked on public television whether he supports the people he inspired, Joker claims he is apolitical and wants nothing to do with the movement.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that the film didn’t take the opportunity to discuss class conflict, considering the opinions that Todd Phillips has shared. He told Vanity Fair that he has a distaste for the new “woke” Hollywood. His narrow-mindedness spills over into his work, with white fragility permeating Joker’s being. Joker constantly expresses the feeling that the world owes him something. Take, for example, one of the most shocking plot points in the story involving a woman named Sophie, played by Zazie Beetz, who Arthur takes a liking to. Various scenes peppered throughout the film show Arthur and Sophie in a blossoming relationship. However, deep into his descent into madness, Arthur visits her apartment uninvited, and it is revealed that these memories were all just fabrications of his imagination. When she asks him to leave, through rather clunky visuals involving red footprints, we can deduce that Joker murders her.
What was most unsettling was not that he murdered her, but why he did it. He did it because he felt like she owed him something. He felt like he had been mistreated because she would not give him her love, and somehow, that warranted murdering. It is not insignificant that the person he demands love from is a woman of color. The scene is reminiscent of the 2014 UCSB shooting, where the gunman lamented in a personal manifesto that he felt ignored by beautiful, white women that had partners of a different race.
For lovers of this film, what is there to love? The crude depiction of mental illness? The perpetuation of white fragility? The fragile masculinity? It all just seems like a sick joke to me.
Ashley Qin | firstname.lastname@example.org