Todd Phillips’ Joker film is exactly what genre critics say these films never can be. It’s a character-focused drama that sinks its teeth into meaty themes like mental illness, abuse, isolation, and the relation of all of those to violence. It certainly evokes Scorcese (who was once speculated to direct, and even made some visits to the set), and is perhaps not as original as I’m apt to give it credit for. But that said, it still exhibits something I think is really important: Phillips has used a character from a big-budget popcorn franchise to ask serious questions about how people become violent. And I think he’s right on the money.
There’s a lot I’d like to say about the film. Suffice it to say that, from a craft perspective, it excels at a slow build of tension, has really interesting compositions, and employs one of the best uses of music I’ve seen in recent memory. Phoenix, of course, gives an engrossing performance as well. But what sticks out to me the most is the core thesis of the film: that abused and isolated people devoid of a worldview become violent oppressors. Of course, nihilism is part and parcel to the Joker character, but that abuse and isolation turns a mirror back on us as viewers. As Joker himself says in a key speech, “Nobody thinks about what it’s like to be the other guy.” As actor and political commentator Michael Knowles said, Joker is right about everybody except for himself – he only lacks introspection.
But this sentiment is a key one. And I agree with Knowles – Joker is right about that. I think one of the reasons that this movie is so divisive right now – and why at the same time it’s garnering such a following – is because contemporary culture seems to support this thesis. Politics have seeped into culture, and we routinely label those who disagree with us enemies and apply all sorts of “isms” to support our animosity. One has to look no further than Ellen to see this.
Ellen, who is hardly well-known for her conservatism, was recently seen at a Dallas Cowboys game laughing alongside former president George W. Bush, a sighting that activated a Twitter mob. With a remarkable tone of grace toward these detractors, Ellen said on her show that when she says to treat everyone kindly, get this, “I mean everyone.”
Now here’s the thing – the following of Joker and the positive response that followed Ellen standing her ground tells me something very important about at least a segment of our culture – we’re hungry for civility. We’re tired of screaming and of getting screamed at. The correlation between social media use and increased stress is another evidence of this. I think by and large, we’re all tired of being in a constant state of “fight or flight,” such that we can’t even abide Ellen enjoying football alongside someone from a different political party.
We need more people willing to extend that grace alongside deeply held beliefs. Joker is a grim reminder of the consequences of refusing to do so.