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Joker Film Review: Hollow Messages and Home Truths

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Having already entered the history books by becoming the first R rated film to gross over $1 billion at the box office, it may be the case that by the time this is published, Todd Philips’ Joker has cemented its place in cinematic history, and picked up a multiple Oscars. After all, there’s a huge amount to love about the film.

The soundtrack is great, the cinematography is captivating and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is worthy of all the plaudits it’s received so far. He navigates the complicated highs and lows of Arthur Fleck’s psyche, switching from the harrowingly pained outcast to the dastardly Joker who dances from murder to murder; demonstrating grit and panache in equal measure throughout.

Copy Cat Fears?

However, there are many aspects of the film that are problematic – particularly in the current socio-political climate. The fact that it’s hard to leave the cinema without the sense that we will almost inevitably read about a Joker super-fan attempting to start his own revolutionary movement in order to avenge his own societal isolation, is testament to the challenging nature of the film.

Unfortunately, though, it’s only so easy to imagine a copy-cat killer because the harsh reality, especially in America, is that many people have already had to actually live through such trauma in recent years. It might not be so easy to imagine Joker inspiring more violence had it not been for the fact that there were more than 400 mass shootings in the States in 2019 alone.

Who are we supposed to get behind?

Another complaint that has been made about the film is that it fails to tackle the traditional dichotomy of goodies and baddies – a concept that is part and parcel of any comic-book movie. Fleck is an evil psychopath, who, it feels like, the directors want us to empathise with, and whose repugnant actions have spawned a mass uprising by the poor people of Gotham against the wealthy elites. But, because there is no hero to resolve the situation (Batman’s still just a kid in this version) and because Fleck ultimately gets the fame and notoriety he would have wanted – the audience are left in no man’s land, with no hero to root for and no clear message to take away.

We’re left unsure as to what exactly the message of the film is because the political undercurrent (which ends up being central to the storyline) is almost totally void of any substance. We’d all like to support the repressed people of Gotham in their fight against injustice, but it’s hard to get on board with that when the callous and murderous Joker is their figurehead.

What does this tell us about our own politics?

In being so politically confused, the writers may have inadvertently captured the current political zeitgeist. There’s so much of our current discourse that is reflected in their confusing attempt to paint the world in terms of good vs bad, when the truth is that it is much more complex than we’d often like to think – the truth often lies somewhere between. Good causes can spring from terrible beginnings and vice versa.

So maybe the true and inadvertent message of Joker is that even fantasy worlds, where writers try and make sense of the real world by synthesising current socio-political issues into a traditional storyline, are unable to avoid the complexities which make the real world so difficult to navigate.

In a time when 53% people feel unable to align themselves with any political party, maybe we should try to confront the complexities of the world at face value and work together to find the best solutions. Instead of playing into the creation of simplified narratives and without the ‘us against them’ divide and conquer mentality that has over-run our political landscape for far too long.

By John Sewell

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