Tuesday 17 September 2019

Is Joker a danger to society?

Some reviewers have expressed concern that the title character in Todd Phillips' film may spark copycat violence

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

In the three days since Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival, reviews have generally been positive, with some even employing the word 'masterpiece' and predicting Oscar glory for its leading man (it also reportedly earned an eight-minute standing ovation). However, many also come with a sense of unease about the character, a disenfranchised white male provoked into acts of terrible violence against the society that has rejected him.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the title character, who starts out as loner Arthur Fleck, a clown come failed comedian, whose experiences in life twist his psyche to the point where he develops his manifesto and fully inhabits his terrifying Joker alter-ego.  Reviewers have praised director Todd Phillips and Phoenix for his portrayal of the legendary character, but some have expressed concern about how the character may be interpreted by some members of the audience.

In Robbie Collin's 4 star review of the film in The Telegraph he likens the reaction in Venice to the response to Fight Club's premiere twenty years ago when, he writes, "critics tried to work out if the film was a sly critique of meathead fascism or a feature-length recruiting advert for it."

He adds, "To be clear, I don’t believe for a second that Phillips and his star, Joaquin Phoenix, actually think that their version of the classic Batman bad guy is in fact a hero to be glorified and emulated. But I worry that someone out there will."

Indiewire, meanwhile, goes further, describing the film as a "toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels" and says it speaks "to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that foment around them."

Time's review is among several echoing those sentiments, claiming that the film "lionises and glamourises Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behaviour".

It might seem alarmist, but fears of copycat behaviour are not entirely without foundation.  There has been a long history of disenfranchised male central characters in cinema who have subsequently been cited as inspiration by men who have committed acts of violence. 

One of the most prominent is perhaps John Hinkley Jr. who, as far back as 1981, was obsessed with Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) and the character's assassination plot, using it as inspiration for his own botched assassination attempt on Ronald Regan. 

Following the release of David Fincher's Fight Club in 1999, which depicted a disenfranchised white collar worker driven to act out his frustration through violence (Ed Norton played the main protagonist, Brad Pitt his charming, but violent alter-ego) via illegal Fight Clubs, it was cited as inspiration for a spate of violent behaviour from young men in real so-called fight clubs (there was even reportedly one such 'fight club' attended by teenagers and young men in Drogheda). 

fight club.jpg
Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club

However, some went even further.  Among them was a copycat explosion carried out by a 17-year-old in New York ten years after the film's release.  Police said the teenager, Kyle Shaw, masterminded a blast outside a Starbucks to mimic Pitt's Fight Club character Tyler Durden, who had plotted attacks on corporate America in the film. 

In the intervening years, elements of the text from Chuck Palahniuk's novel, on which the film is based, have reportedly been adopted and parroted by various alt-right groups.

It's difficult to find a review of Joker that doesn't mention either Fight Club or Taxi Driver or both.  Will the film incite a preconditioned mind to violence?  Certainly in the current climate, particularly in the US, where hysteria about, and fear of, lone, active shooters and their motivations are at a nerve-jangling peak, a film featuring an isolated white male with homicidal tendencies is bound to cause unease. 

De Niro starred as a mentally disturbed taxi driver in the 1976 movie

Just this past weekend seven people were shot dead and at least 20 wounded by a 'white male' gunman in Odessa, Texas.  The incident came just four weeks after 22 people were killed by another white male in El Paso.  Authorities stated that they believed Patrick Crusius (21) had published a white nationalist manifesto on 8chan before the attack.

However, one could argue that best art reflects the best and worst aspects of society and it is not the job of the artist to make judgements about those reflections, however horrifing they may be.  That said, there's always a danger, in attempting to tease out and understand the motivations of a mind like Joker's, that you inspire sympathy for his subsequent violence.  However, surely whether or not some members of the audience may sympathise, or even identify, with Fleck is a sad indictment of our society, rather than a reason to condemn the film or filmmakers.

One of the seemingly more measured takes on the film comes from Christina Newland in The Guardian, who argues that while it is a "real possibility" that Fleck may spark copycat violence, the alarmist reactions to the film, (it has been labelled 'right-wing' in some quarters), miss its subtler points; "Joker is a smart, stylish, and troubling film: the man it depicts is a product of our current era."  When the film finally releases on October 4th, the audience will finally have the opportunity to make up its own mind.

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