I’m not sure when I’ll ever get back into a movie theater, given that our government plans to do nothing about Covid-19. Still, I recently watched Joker for the first time. In an eerily prescient move, Todd Phillips envisions the character as tapping into public dissatisfaction with the exploitative and unfeeling power of the rich, who often lead, through their greed, to outbreaks of public unrest. The character of the vigilante clown coalesces the oppressed of Gotham and leads to riots in the streets. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the film since I’d only briefly heard of it secondhand. It is one of the most uninterrupted stretches of darkness that I can recall seeing in a movie, which, in some respects, makes it believable.
Comic book character films have taken on a life of their own. Joker explore the backstory of mental illness in a culture that is bent on cutting care for those in need. Not only that, the movie doesn’t let you think anyone is good. All the heroes are flawed, and most of them fatally so. Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, of course, solidifies the story and make the Joker sympathetic. And there’s a fair amount of truth to the way that a capitalistic society is driven to hold down the many who need to be exploited for the system to work. Although it is dark and gritty there’s a strong social commentary here. It doesn’t surprise me that it was the highest grossing film of last year. You don’t have to be a comic book fan to be drawn in.
Not too many other major films since One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest have attempted to stare unwaveringly at mental illness. It is an extremely common condition, especially if we consider the number of people who require antidepressant, anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs. The culture we’ve created isn’t healthy for our mental development. It’s often cruel and uncaring. It never helps when people lie to us. Joker addresses these realities, exploring the “perfect storm” of factors that might lead to a psychopathic crime lord. Of course, living through the Trump administration, led by an unfeeling, money-driven “president,” it’s obvious that we’ve set up a system that refuses to confront those who have no business making important decisions. A system that could conceivably set up such pathological “leaders.” None of the privileged people in the film cares for anyone beyond themselves. And they wonder why violence erupts in the streets. I think I have some recommended viewing to suggest to them.