Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, is already the year’s most controversial film due to its largely sympathetic portrayal of a lonely, mentally ill loser who becomes a hero after going on a killing spree that is perceived as an attack on wealthy elites.
Before its debut weekend was even half-finished, the film already turned a profit and made the biggest October debut in history. It has already won the top award at the Venice Film Festival—with an eight-minute standing ovation, no less—and early buzz is that the film should snag an Oscar or two.
1. Stripped to its core, the film is the familiar story of a bullying victim who reaches his limit and becomes violent.
In a once-in-a-lifetime performance, Joaquin Phoenix—who lost 52 pounds to play the greasy-haired, emaciated, mentally ill clown Arthur Fleck—plays a mild-mannered and fairly effeminate mother’s boy who has been battered literally and figuratively since birth. In the very first scene, as he works the humiliating gig of being a clown in full makeup standing outside a store holding a sign, a gang of youths steal his sign, whereupon he chases them through crowded streets and is beaten severely by them in an alleyway. Arthur is even mocked and lied to by the other clowns at the entertainment agency where he works. The people in his poor neighborhood treat him like a geeky and annoying misfit. His father is missing, as is any female romantic interest in his life. Then one night, after losing his job and enduring another savage group beating, he pulls out a handgun and shoots his abusers. It is then that he says he feels alive for the first time in his life.
2. One scene recalls an infamous real-life NYC subway shooting from 1984 .
In Joker, Arthur’s first murder is a triple homicide—he blasts three Wall Street jocks who bullied and beat him for his annoying laugh. As a result of his vigiliantism, he becomes a folk hero. This is reminiscent of the 1984 attack by Bernhard “The Subway Gunman” Goetz on four black youths he says were harassing him. Unlike Arthur Fleck, Goetz was only able to wound his four alleged assailants rather than kill them. One of his targets, James Ramseur, was later convicted of rape and recently killed himself.
3. Unlike previous incarnations of the character, the Joker’s trademark laugh is based on a real psychological disorder.
Actor Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips decided to pin the Joker’s maniacal, hyena-like laugh on a real disorder that is known variously as “pathological laughter and crying” and “involuntary emotional expression disorder.” Whether or not it’s triggered by any stimuli that would make him laugh or cry, Arthur is frequently stricken with bouts of uncontrollable laughing and crying that make it impossible to have a normal life. In the subway shooting scene where Arthur finally turns from bullying victim to bully, Arthur murders a trio of Wall Street execs who bully him for his laugh.
4. The film is set in 1981 in “Gotham City,” which has an uncanny resemblance to New York City in 1981.
Unlike these days in New York, which has been revamped and revitalized and cleaned up considerably in the intervening years by a huge tsunami of capital, the Gotham City of “Joker” is teeming with garbage and rats and graffiti, just like NYC was in the early 1980s. One movie marquee advertises Zorro: The Gay Blade and Blow Out, two 1981 hits that are largely forgotten today.
5. Another reason you can tell it’s set in 1981 is that funds for mental-health treatment have been slashed.
Arthur Fleck routinely visits a tight-lipped black female social worker who gives him access to government sponsored psychiatric medication—a whopping seven prescriptions in Arthur’s case. One day she says that funds for her clinic have been cut and tells Arthur, “They don’t give a shit about you.” In 1981, President Ronald Reagan repealed Jimmy Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, effectively pushing many people who’d previously been institutionalized out onto the street and arguably launching the modern homeless crisis.
6. Joker features several striking parallels to Martin Scorsese’s super-dark 1981 film The King of Comedy.
Joker, which was filmed exclusively in NYC and northern New Jersey in 1981, is set in Gotham City in 1981—same year that Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro’s dark comedy about celebrity stalkers The King of Comedy was filmed in New York. In that film, Robert De Niro plays a failed standup comedian named Rupert Pupkin who lives with his mother and is obsessed with a late-night talk-show host whom he later kidnaps. When Rupert is finally arrested, he becomes a celebrity. The film also makes it nearly impossible to tell which scenes are real and which are all in Rupert’s head. All of this also applies to Arthur Fleck’s character, with the glaring exception being that he murders the talk-show host on live television rather than simply kidnapping him—with the host ironically played by Robert De Niro.
7. Although preemptively touted by critics as a right-wing revenge fantasy, Joker is firmly leftist in its sympathies.
In the Gotham City of 1981 depicted in Joker, there are but two races—haves and have-nots. There is tremendous wealth inequality between a fat and arrogant ruling class and all the squirming and dirty proles beneath them. Because Arthur’s first murder is that of workers at Wall Street, the mysterious killer in clown makeup becomes a folk hero to poor people, who don clown masks, tote signs that read WE ARE ALL CLOWNS, and rise up Occupy Wall Street/Antifa style to wreak vengeance on their capitalist overlords. Central to the theme of wealth inequality is the fact that he and his mother live in a seedy tenement apartment while his biological father is a billionaire who lives in a mansion.
8. It’s suggested that Arthur’s mental illness and tendency to murder were caused by head injuries in his childhood.
A pivotal motif toward the latter half of the movie is when Arthur reads a letter from his ailing mother to mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, begging that he help lift them out of such a meager, impoverished existence since, after all, Arthur was his illegitimate child. Arthur then visits the gates outside of Wayne’s mansion and later contacts him in the bathroom of a theater, where Wayne tells him that his mother is a lunatic and that Arthur was adopted—before punching Arthur to the ground. Arthur then visits Arkham Asylum and steals the records about his mother, where he learns to his shock that he was her adopted son, whom she neglected and allowed to be beaten by her abusive boyfriend, leaving Arthur with head injuries. It’s common knowledge that an overwhelming quotient of mentally ill people and killers suffer from the effects of head injuries.
9. The director has come under fire for saying he can no longer make comedies in the “woke culture” environment.
It seems odd at first that one of the darkest major Hollywood films in years was made by Todd Phillips, best-known for wacky comedies such as Dodgeball and the Hangover series. According to Phillips, he doesn’t feel comfortable making comedies anymore in the current climate:
Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies, in general, all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’
Regarding extensive criticism prior to the film’s release that it celebrated white-male violence, Phillips dismissed it as empty leftist outrage:
I think it’s because outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while […] What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye-opening for me.
10. Several theaters and law-enforcement agencies were prepared for violence or even a mass shooting at opening-weekend screenings.
Summoning grim memories of the 2012 Aurora massacre in which 12 people were killed and 70 injured at a Colorado theater that was screening The Dark Knight Rises, fears started circulating about this film a year ago when its production was first announced. Surviving family members of Aurora victims sent a letter to Warner Brothers pleading with the company—which produced Joker as well as offering occasional support to the NRA—to take an open stand against gun violence.
Some theater chains, also anticipating violence by one unhinged lone wolf who identifies a little too closely with the title character, have banned the wearing of masks during screenings of the film.
The NYPD, LAPD, FBI, and US Army have all raised concerns regarding tips of potential threats at theaters nationwide.
At least for now, those concerns have proved to be unfounded.