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Sympathy for the devil

While the controversial Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is hardly the non-stop violence spree that advance news reports were hyperventilating about, the violence it does feature is horrific.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in a scene from the movie "Joker." (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

After dozens of superhero movies in the past 14 years since Batman Begins kicked off the blockbuster hero craze worldwide, all of the flashy costumes and over-the-top effects extravaganzas were starting to blend together. It seemed as though there was a never-ending race to make the stories ever more convoluted and complicated, leaving those who aren’t obsessed fans to wonder if anyone dared to strip things down and do something different with the genre.

Well, the new and controversial Joker definitely breaks the mold. Directed by Todd Phillips, who started his career making frat-boy humor comedy films such as Old School and the Hangover trilogy before detouring into more serious fare with the true-life dark dramedy War Dogs in 2016 , Joker is the origin story of the infamous Batman supervillain, but told in a way that is eerily parallel to Martin Scorsese’s disturbing 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

That means that Phillips and his incredible lead actor Joaquin Phoenix have crafted a brooding exploration of a man who is slowly sinking into violent insanity. The result is a movie that is a cinematic achievement that critics are raving about and will likely win some Oscars (Phoenix is, I think, a lock for Best Actor).

But it’s also a grim, tragic tale that that no kid should be allowed to see. While it’s hardly the non-stop violence spree that advance news reports were hyperventilating about, the violence it does feature is horrific. And it features perhaps the most disturbing one-on-one, brutal murder scene that I’ve ever seen on the silver screen.

The movie follows Phoenix as a pathetic, mentally disturbed yet initially sweet man named Arthur Fleck, who lives with his elderly mother in a worn-down apartment in Gotham City. The setting looks like the 1970s-era New York, when that metropolis was on the edge of bankruptcy and overrun with grime and filth.

Arthur works as a clown for a Z-grade company, spinning signs for going-out-of-business sales and making appearances at children’s hospitals. The rest of his life consists of taking care of his mother, who’s obsessed with a billionaire named Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who is running for Mayor (shades of President Trump).

Arthur, meanwhile, is obsessed with a Johnny Carson-esque late-night talk show host named Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), and his dream is to perform standup comedy on the show. He attends a taping where he calls out loudly to Murray, leading the host to bring him onstage and have fun with him on the fly.

Murray is surprisingly sweet and well-meaning, fueling Arthur’s dream further. But Phillips (who also co-wrote with Scott Silver of 8 Mile fame) shows the viewer that while Arthur thinks he’s doing great onstage, he’s actually bombing and breaking down right in public by laughing hysterically while barely getting a terrible joke out.

The footage winds up in Murray’s hands, and he shows it derisively on the talk show. Viewers beg to see more of Arthur, leading to an invite to appear at the same time the rest of his world is falling apart: he loses his clown gig and discovers that his mother’s stories about their lives and who his missing father is have been lifelong lies.

As he loses access to his medications and finds the world laughing at him, he tries to reach out to a wisecracking single mother who lives down the hall. But is that relationship really what it seems, either? And how long will it be before Arthur is pushed and prodded, without the safety net of mental health care, before he snaps?

Don’t get me wrong, Joker is  a masterpiece on a creative level. And it’s not the kind of film that should provoke copycat killings from anyone who’s actually seen it (although insane people who think it’ll be a violence-praising joyride could be the alleged cause of concern for the FBI and police nationwide).

Phoenix is an acting marvel, often making viewers sympathetic to Arthur and the death by a thousand cuts he endures daily in his life. Frequently shirtless, he is both ripped and too skinny at once as Arthur, his spine somehow jutting out from his back during one particularly disturbing scene. This is a performance by a man who has invested in the character from inside out.

But to what end? Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight played Joker all the way to an Oscar—but the role was so horrifying and draining that many believe it contributed to a drug addiction that soon killed him. And at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Returns in 2012, an insane young man shot and killed 12 people and injured dozens more in Aurora, Colorado.

I think that Warner Brothers studio, which is the home of all DC and Batman universe-related films, should have shut down the use of the Joker ever again after those double tragedies. While the mainstream press is raving about Joker, fueling the public’s interest all the way to a record setting $93.5 million opening weekend, it’s impossible to enjoy a movie like this. Quite the contrary.

While Joker doesn’t celebrate Arthur’s villainy, it still makes him sympathetic and contributes to a dispiriting ugliness that is sad to see in our current culture, which is so deeply divided and morally confused. Towards the end of the film, Arthur’s rise to notoriety inspires Antifa-style rioting in the streets of Gotham, underscoring the film’s consistently negative portrayal of Thomas Wayne for having big money while Arthur and his mom are broke. Thus, the film also carries a sometimes-subtle, sometimes-not class warfare message. These concerning aspects, combined with the above-mentioned murder scene, make this a film that might be good in a certain cinematic sense but really isn’t good for you in any moral or spiritual way.


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About Carl Kozlowski 8 Articles
Carl Kozlowski is a Los Angeles-based, Catholic writer and comedian who wrote the "Cinemazlowski" movie-review column for EWTN's Catholic News Agency for four years and currently writes about film for the LA Archdiocesan magazine Angelus News. He is a Rotten Tomatoes film critic and was arts editor for Pasadena Weekly for a decade. He co-owns and co-runs Catholic Laughs, which brings clean, clever standup comedy with a Catholic twist to Catholic parishes and other venues nationwide. He's also the producer and a cohost of the weekly talk show "Man Up", which is like a funny, conservative "The View" for guys.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review, Carl. Personally, I felt the film was more poisonous.

    This is possibly the most satanic film I’ve seen since Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I’m referring to its vision of the human person, and its insistence on a world without forgiveness, and thus a world without hope.

    It is dark in a way that is more extreme than the truth, and political in a way that is even more polarizing than our current climate.

    And then there is the gratuitous, intimate on-screen violence. My full review is at the website link.

    • Clayton, wow, War of the Worlds is an apt comparison. I hated that movie with an even greater passion than this. Great point.

  2. I predict that when people attack the film, as well they should, the main defense of it will be from the standpoint of ‘artistic freedom’. That is a legitimate defense, and much will be made of it, as well it should.

    But what about artistic responsibility? Surely the producers and the lead actor will prattle on and on about not being morally responsible for the effect the movie might have on some poor pathetic souls, but are they innocent of any guilt for that? Not to me.

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