‘Is it me or is it getting crazier out there?’ So asks Joaquin Phoenix in his disturbing but utterly mesmerising performance in Joker, the comic book spin-off that’s so haunting and violent that U.S. cinemas have been warned their screenings may attract mass shootings.
If the critical response to Joker is anything to go by, the answer to his question isn’t quite so simple.
Yes, it’s getting crazier out here. But also, in part, so are you.
Recent premiere, Joker, is the comic book spin-off that is so haunting and violent that U.S. cinemas have been warned their screenings may attract mass shootings
Or to be more specific, your unquenchable thirst for violence. It certainly is insatiable.
At one point in the film, the Joker blows someone’s brains out with a revolver on live television.
He also slaughters a psychiatrist, walking away leaving bloody footprints in his wake.
During another sickening scene, he stabs a man to death with a pair of scissors, first in the stomach and then in the throat, and then he… need I go on?
Only ten years ago, this film would have been rated an 18, and it has been designated an ‘R’ in the U.S. meaning anyone under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult.
In the UK, for reasons that escape me, it’s deemed fine for unaccompanied 15-year-olds.
Whatever the reason, Warner Bros, the film’s creators, must be laughing their way to the bank. After all, ruthless barbarity sells seats.
In the UK, the film has baffled critics after it was given a certificate that allowed unaccompanied 15-year-olds to attend
In the U.S., it broke the record for the largest-ever October opening weekend, and is already close to making $100 million at the box office.
This is particularly remarkable for such a dark, depressing film about a giggling, sadistic anti-hero.
Yet while it has cemented itself as a feasible contender for Best Film at next year’s Oscars, the backlash against Joker’s gratuitous violence has developed into a moral crisis on a global scale.
In America, cinema audiences are turning up at Joker screenings in Joker masks, as if to honour this sick, sad, psychopathic killer, so horribly reminiscent of real-life killers who have turned violently on ‘society’, largely it seems because of their petty feelings of resentment.
Cinema chains fear for audience safety.
When Joker was released in America, AMC Theatres, the U.S.’s largest cinema chain, banned customers from wearing masks or facepaint.
No doubt they were concerned at the prospect of a repeat of the 2012 Aurora attack in Colorado, when a shooter killed 12 people at a showing of Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises.
Meanwhile, the U.S. army has issued guidelines to its personnel about what to do if they encounter a Joker-inspired mass shooter.
Disturbingly, the FBI has received warnings of ‘a very credible potential mass shooting’ linked to ‘disturbing and very specific’ discussions on the internet.
In America, cinema audiences are turning up at Joker screenings in Joker masks, as if to honour this sick, sad, psychopathic killer
After I watched the film, I was unable to shake off the chill caused by its violence for days.
And yet, for all the hysteria surrounding the film, I can’t help but feel Joker is also a story for our time — a lightning rod for so much contemporary rancour and rage, albeit the rancour and rage of the most comfortable, well-fed and privileged generation in human history.
In fact, it seems much of the discontent glorified in the film is mirrored in an unlikely contemporary phenomenon: the on-going Extinction Rebellion protests.
Now, strictly speaking, I’m on the same side as the Extinction Rebels. Rapid climate change is a problem. But oh, how embarrassing they are!
Eco-protesters glueing themselves to each other. Banners demanding: ‘Burn borders not coal!’
Protesting may satisfy one’s vanity, but virtue-signalling doesn’t change things. It’s more a religion of resentment, dedicated to blaming other people — and even wanting to punish them…
Which brings me back to Joker.
The FBI has received warnings of ‘a very credible potential mass shooting’ linked to ‘disturbing and very specific’ discussions on the internet
Originally it was meant as a blackly dystopian portrait of Gotham City in terminal decay.
For Gotham City, the fictional home of Batman, you could easily read New York, or London — or indeed, the West.
You can see how its mood of doom would chime with the apocalyptic cult of the climate protesters, as they gleefully tell us all we have only ’12 years left to save the planet’.
But there’s another, more profound, connection.
The Joker and the eco-protesters both see themselves as pitiful pawns of somebody else’s evil machinations.
Joker — a struggling street performer called Arthur Fleck — lives a sad, victimised life.
The film suggests he has no real will of his own, no capacity to better himself.
The world that Joker depicts, though, is one of helpless and passive victims; of losers who never had a chance
Instead, he is driven to his evil ways by an unhappy childhood, an uncaring society, by nasty rich white men in suits and ties, and by government cutbacks to local services.
And so he embarks on his psychotic career of revenge against the world; a career of desultory, grotesque violence.
Yet the Joker, a pitiful psychopath, becomes a folk hero and role model.
The disaffected people of Gotham start to wear Joker masks, wave placards reading ‘Kill the Rich!’ and in one brutal scene they set about two policemen and beat them to a pulp.
Finally, the whole city erupts in chaotic riots, with thugs running amok, cars set alight, windows smashed and shops looted… much like real-life London during the 2011 riots. Perhaps we are supposed to find such scenes exciting.
Joaquin Phoenix takes centre stage in the film with a disturbing but utterly mesmerising performance
Either way, one can’t help but feel that, even if the film’s creators had excised the Joker’s lust for gore and violence, the story contains a deeply disturbing message.
With its obsession with victimhood, the film is like a deliberate upending of the lives of the early pioneers who settled in the frontiers of the American West.
It flies in the face of the classic American dream, in which people didn’t expect to be looked after but, instead, enjoyed the freedom to forge their own way in the world with talent and hard work.
The world that Joker depicts, though, is one of helpless and passive victims; of losers who never had a chance.
Inevitably, the film has a dark, haunting and unforgettable power. It gets inside your head and it stays there.
Even those shocked by its violence cannot deny it’s a piece of technically brilliant film-making, deliberately reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in its claustrophobic, blood-dark intensity, with Joaquin Phoenix just as brooding a screen presence as Robert De Niro in the 1976 masterpiece.
Taxi Driver, like Joker, also sent society into a frenzy.
Disaffected punks in the Seventies adopted De Niro’s trademark mohican hairstyle — and John Hinckley, a loner with mental health issues, was so ‘inspired’ by Taxi Driver that he tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.
With the obvious parallels between the two films’ anti-heroes, critics in the U.S. have expressed concerns that the Joker might spawn violent copycats.
Perhaps that is why, when recently questioned about the film’s violence, Joaquin Phoenix simply walked out of an interview.
Have its producers created a monster they cannot control?
Although outbreaks of moral hysteria about movies come and go with the seasons, I doubt the traumatic response to Joker will subside soon.
Many have expressed anxiety about how it might ‘trigger’ someone who already has mental health issues.
That would undoubtedly be a very worrying development. But we must not let it overshadow the importance of the film’s reliance on the modern cult of resentment, so clearly mirrored in the current eco-protests.
This is not to suggest the Extinction Rebels are about to turn violent: they emphasise how they want to abide by the law and many are pacifists.
Yet with venomous skill, Joker certainly captures their profoundly deep sense of millennial rage and dread — and then it adds some more, just for ‘fun’.
But don’t be fooled. This is not a film that will put a smile on anyone’s face.