Getting My Head Around Joker

I cried after watching the latest Joker movie. From when the credits rolled until about three hours afterwards, I felt like a complete wreck. The two people I watched the film with, although not as emotional as I was, experienced a similar downbeat reaction too. They defined their feeling as emptiness. But having read countless reviews since and after speaking to many other people who’ve seen the film, we seem to be alone in our reaction.

‘Love’ is the word I often hear associated with Joker. People love the movie. They love the acting from leading man Joaquin Phoenix. They love the music. They love the storyline and the twists and how ambiguous the ending is. These are all undeniably good aspects of the film. However, I do not love Joker, or even remotely like it. In fact, I’m grossly put off by the idea of watching the whole thing again. I can’t even listen to a single song from Hildur Guonadottir’s Oscar-winning soundtrack.

The thought of returning to that world makes me feel deep, deep sadness and I’ve been trying to figure out why that is during the four months since its screening. There have been claims that Joker is dangerous. In their critique of the film, many media outlets claimed the film’s violence as glorifying and at risk of sparking real-life copycat criminals.

I don’t feel this is wholly accurate. After seeing several arguments that ironically chastise the press for a gross overreaction, there is a case to say people are now so used to seeing on-screen violence that they’ve become numb to it. There are more violent movies out there but I haven’t seen a film that’s portrayed murder in such a callous, unmotivated fashion. And if they have, there’s been redemption, condemnation and/or consequences. Joker has none of these in its finale.

Robert de Niro’s character, Franklin Murray, tries to supply it on his talk show, explaining to Arthur Fleck that his actions have been grossly over the top. But then Fleck sobs about being picked on by the host and kills him live on air. This scene is the one that left me most heartbroken. Seeing the lifeless corpse of Murray with a hole in his head and his brains on the wall was disturbing to the core – not for the blood and guts but because an innocent man was killed nonsensically.

I’ve heard people also state this is a film exploring mental illness. I am categorically against that viewpoint. For me, this is a breakdown of a murderer who happens to have a mental illness. His condition is not an explanation for his actions. When Fleck shot the third man in the subway scene – when self-defence was no longer his prerogative – he was on his medication. Society hadn’t ‘abandoned’ him at that point but he chose to murder anyway.

Although the film tries to point fingers at how a man like Fleck can descend into villainy, there are no indications that he was ever a decent person. The only way I can comfortably re-watch his story is if I go in with the mindset that this is a character study from the perspective of a murderer telling his own biased and blurred version of events. I could understand why the film exists. But I still wouldn’t want to re-visit that world regularly.

The fact that most people don’t view Joker in the same way I do is perhaps the most saddening aspect of my relationship with the film. If there was more damnation of Fleck’s actions then I could appreciate the art, however dark it is. But some reviewers I’ve seen have actually expressed delight for moments such as when he shot the guys on the subway. You can say it’s all set in a fictional world but the recent Batman movies have been lauded for their closeness to reality.

I know that this is just a film and I should have moved on by now but it’s been difficult to shake off when so much praise has been continuously pouring in. I needed to explore my feelings, particularly as I enjoyed The Dark Knight version of the Joker so much. By even questioning my enjoyment of the same character in a different setting, I really do appreciate what director and writer Todd Phillips has made. However, I’m not sure if that was his intention and so I will remain an outsider. But unlike Arthur Fleck, I’m happy with that.

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