At its core, when you set aside the A-grade acting, cinematography, and the look of the thing, Joker relies on a tired and destructive trope: child abuse leads to mental illness that is murderous in character.
This has become a sort of short hand for villainy. It’s used in a similar manner to physical scarring.
There’s even a fan wiki devoted to baddies with “mental illness”.
“A villain who is perfectly coherent and stable can still be qualified as mentally ill if the evil deeds they perform are extremely fiendish,” it declares. Arrrrghhh. Where do you start?
Joker’s director, Todd Philips, also made the The Hangover and Borat. He says that he’s lately struggled to direct comedies “with this woke culture” that apparently makes it too easy to offend people.
It’s hard not to read that as anything but a heap of crap. You can make people laugh without being a dick if you just use your head. That includes being edgy, even offensive. What makes people cross is when filmmakers resort to bullying, persecuting people who get enough of it in their every day lives.
Joker, nominally a comic book movie, is, however, trying to be a “serious” character study.
It’s not that there aren’t things to like about the film for geeks like me or for other cinephiles.
The retro look of Joker is superb. It throws you into a Gotham City of maybe 30 years ago (no specific date is given) that’s in the midst of an economic crisis. It’s run by a heartless political class with wealthy would-be mayor Thomas Wayne, an obvious analogue for Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, openly expressing his contempt for the poor. If you recognise that name but aren’t a comic book fan, you’ll realise that he’s Batman’s dad, who is usually presented as a rich guy with a conscience, although he’s also been pitched as a brutal version in this version of the tale.
The film at one point does something interesting. Warning: spoilers coming.
Joker, as Arthur Fleck, sits opposite his social worker/therapist expressing his frustrations. She doesn’t listen to him, he complains. She interrupts his monologue to tell him that their conversations are going to have to come to an end as a result of city cutbacks. “They don’t give a shit about people like us,” she says.
But the idea isn’t really followed through, and it isn’t the cause of Joker’s rampage. By then it has already started.
In the streets, members of an angry underclass are rioting in clown masks, V for Vendetta style, using Joker’s murderous acts as inspiration. But Joker tells Robert De Niro’s bullying TV host character that revolution was not his intent. He’s not political, he isn’t interested in politics.
He just kills, brutally, not just those who’ve wronged him but anyone that he feels has crossed him, including the woman who won’t be the girlfriend he has cast her in the role as.
Warner Brothers has said Joker is not supposed to be seen as a hero. However, there are people who may see this version of him: a lonely embittered white guy, beaten up and abused by people around him, beaten down by society before violently striking back, as one. There have been concerns expressed about what this may lead to if people come away from the movie with the wrong impression.
Some of them have clearly been provoked by trolling, by people playing dangerous jokes in an attempt to wind up the authorities. They’ve worked. Some cinemas have banned masks. The LAPD is on alert. So is the US army.
On the other hand, if you have a society that gives people easy access to guns, maybe they should be worried.
After all, the screen Joker is mentally ill! Which must mean he’s violent. Because all mentally ill people, and victims of child abuse, are ticking time bombs which this film could ignite!
Except that they aren’t.
Lots of people with mental illness have indeed suffered terribly as a result of funding cuts wherever they may live.
Having experienced post-traumatic stress and the darkness that comes with it, courtesy of a road accident that nearly killed me, I can well understand what they’re going through. I tried the NHS and found myself getting passed from pillar to post before being told I’d have to wait months just to get an assessment that might, if I ticked the right box, lead to just six sessions with a therapist.
So I went private with the help of a civil lawsuit and a good solicitor who prodded the insurance company on the other side. You know what? Treatment is effective.
The vast majority of people who aren’t so lucky don’t explode. They turn on themselves rather than on others.
The way Hollywood continually suggests otherwise is cheap.
And no that isn’t me being “woke”. Mental illness is no joke. Paying due heed to the realities of it doesn’t prevent you from making interesting, or funny, or subversive, or disturbing character driven movies.
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