It has been several months since the release of Joker, the origin story of one of the most well-known villains in comic book history. Despite winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, Joker has faced some harsh criticism due to its brutal honesty about significant issues in today’s society. Undoubtedly, the film deserves all of its accolades — so why was the media so afraid of it?
Joker is directed by Todd Philips, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the antihero — Arthur Fleck. Arthur, who has a condition that makes him laugh at inappropriate times, lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and works at a Clown Agency. The film presents a grim painting of Gotham City (in essence, New York in a parallel universe): the dirty streets are filled with the homeless, the buildings are in disrepair, there is a garbage strike. As the viewer follows the footsteps of Arthur Fleck, they are thrust into his decline, as he tries to survive in this harsh world.
In terms of technical achievement, the film is brilliant. The cinematography evokes a sense of disturbance, but also intimidation — the viewers are mere observers in this story, thrust into it forcefully. They cannot do anything about it, but sit and watch the decline of Arthur’s life. This disturbing feeling is heightened by the haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. It is one that is subtle, allowing to keep attention on the events of the movie, but at the same time, it helps to emphasize these events. Phoenix’s job as an actor has also been well done. The intricate workings of the frail mind of Arthur could not have been embedded into a better actor than Joaquin Phoenix.
Despite all this brilliance, the film was heavily criticized. The brutal honesty with which it presented its story seemed to push away countless critics.”It’s a movie trying so hard to be capital-b Big that it can’t help looking small,” states Ann Hornaday. Others have expressed concern about the film inspiring similar anarchy from those marginalized, as does Arthur and countless others during the protests against Gotham’s rich.
Fight Club has similarly been criticized by reviewers in fear of it sparking similar activity and behavior, as is portrayed on the screen. Some have referenced the teenage crime inspired by the release of A Clockwork Orange as an argument against Fight Club’s masterful portrayal of modern middle-class masculinity. This seems to be a trend for films that, with brutal honesty, portray the catharsis that their main characters find in violence — the fact that the films are satirical seems to be ignored by critics.
One of the reasons why Joker has faced such heavy backlash is due to the abundance of issues it touches on: mental health, gun violence and poverty. They are all issues that are controversial in today’s society, sparking heated debate online and offline. Mental health funding is a real issue, as countless patients depend on it for support — as does Arthur in the first half of the film. Although many choose to ignore this fact, Arthur does seek help, as he asks for his medication dose to be increased. Psychiatrist Imani Walker found it sad to watch the neglect of someone who truly wanted to be helped.
Perhaps, the issue lies in the sympathetic portrayal of Arthur and his problems: he is a character not many can relate to, but the daily struggles he faces, such as loneliness or extreme awkwardness in social situations, evoke compassion from the audience. The viewers realize why he spirals into a life of violence — there are explanations for this all along. Combined with a gritty outlook on modern society, Joker cannot help but become picked apart by various members of the audience.
Joker has faced far more concern than films with a higher body count, like John Wick, where Keanu Reeves’ character also acts out of a personal vendetta. Perhaps, it is the anarchy that lies at the core of Arthur Fleck’s character — he openly criticizes society as a whole, when he asks “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash?” After all, society does not like mirrors, especially those so forcefully shoved into its face.
Nevertheless, the criticism it has faced did not prevent Joker from becoming the first R-rated film to gather 1 billion dollars at the box office. The controversy only served to pique the audience’s interest and encourage them to see what the backlash is truly about. In fact, the film received an 8.6 rating on IMDb, making it the 19th highest-rated film of all time on the website. Being nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture, Joker is a skilfully-created film. The backlash it has created only shows its success in promoting discussion about the issues it portrays.
Featured Image via YouTube