By Dillion Daniels
Going on its second week in the box office; ‘Joker’ has become the most controversial movie in recent memory. Receiving exemplar reviews calling the movie a masterpiece, critics heralding Joaquin’s performance as masterful; the consensus seems to be that ‘Joker’ is a great piece of dark cinema; a chilling and intimate look at the descent of a man into madness.
Others, however, are less impressed; with many Hollywood types saying the film will inspire violence. A critic from Indiewire went so far as to say that the film will be a rally call for ‘Incels’; a loosely organized group of young men who identify themselves by their ‘involuntary celibacy’ and by their mutual disdain for women.
Say what you want about the movie, there’s no doubt that ‘Joker’ is incredibly relevant in a time where political divisiveness, income inequality, and mass shootings have become part of everyday discussion. It is this relevancy perhaps, which has stirred up subconscious disquiet within audiences; and resulted in the outpouring of controversy from the public and debate amongst critics.
‘Joker’ takes audiences into the dark streets of late 1970’s Gotham, a fictitious city modelled off New York. The city is ripe with crime, poverty, and depravity. Most of its working-class citizens are living in slums where the law can do little to protect them, and there is no social safety net to save them from economic catastrophe. While millions live in hopelessness, the wealthy and corrupt plutocrats who run the city; men like Thomas Wayne, father of America’s favorite antihero, live in the lap of luxury. In this festering underbelly of Gotham, we find Arthur Fleck, a struggling clown and comedian who supports his invalid mother. ‘Joker’ follows Arthur Fleck’s life as an outcast in the hard streets of Gotham, and his subsequent dissent into madness.
This simple synopsis of the movie overlooks the pressing and poignant themes that set the film apart from others in its genre. Themes of class consciousness, income inequality, political corruption, poverty, mental health, and domestic terrorism. It’s no wonder the film has audiences stewing in discomfort. ‘Joker’ forces Americans to look in the mirror. It demands them: captive audiences in front of the silver screen; to take in a reflection of the degenerative society they’ve created. Perhaps worse, the film paints a terrifying image of what may lay on the horizon if America’s social problems; namely income inequality, corruption, and the decay of civil duty, are not addressed.
Crucial to the film’s perspective is the class struggle evident in the streets of Gotham. The disparity between the haves, and the have nots. The result is a rise of class conflict: mass protests with people bearing signs reading: “Kill the Rich,” which culminates in a series of bloody and chaotic riots which rips the city apart. With class consciousness on the rise in America, and the screws being put to working class people everywhere, it’s no wonder audiences find themselves squirming in their seats at their local movie theater. ‘Joker’ gives us a clear vision of the the growing class struggle in our country and delivers a warning of what may come to pass if the struggles of the downtrodden continue to be overlooked.
Perhaps more uncomfortable for audiences, is the films clear headed look at mental illness and its correlation mass violence. Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill man who faced nothing but hardship and abuse in his life. This leads him to committing murder in self-defense, which in turn sends him down a spiral of madness and violence which coincides with the rise of political unrest within the city. We find Arthur’s new caricature, ‘The Joker’ heralded as a sort of prophet, a symbol for the class struggle within the city.
We can see through this film just how closely intertwined mental illness and mass violence really are. We are shown too, how in a time of civil unrest madmen like the Joker, Like Adolph Hitler, or Joseph Stalin, can be lifted from a downtrodden life of abuse and neglect, to the altar demagogues whose power of character lead to violence and death on a mass scale. In a time where America is facing mass shooting on a weekly basis; when the issue of gun control has come center stage, many Americans are uncomfortable with the point ‘Joker’ is trying to make: “We don’t just have a gun problem in America, we have a mental health problem.” A crisis which has left mentally ill men who feel they have no place in society with the sense that they have no other recourse but to commit acts of extreme violence.
‘Joker’ is a well-crafted film that has far too much to be said about America’s current state of affairs to be ignored. Love it or hate it. It serves as a mirror of the society we live in. It is a powerful look at madness and the potential for political upheaval in a society that refuses to address its ills. ‘Joker’ is a cautionary tale with lessons that an uncomfortable public are unwilling to learn.
Perhaps the greatest lesson ‘Joker’ has for us can be summed up in a quote from the film. A quote which should burden the minds of every American as our country faces the consequences of turning its back on the disenfranchised for decades:
“What happens when you cross a mentally ill loner and a society that abandons him and treats him like a crap? I’ll tell you what you get, Murray, you get what you fucking deserve!”
Dillion Daniels is a local writer, activist, and podcaster native to Mason City, Iowa. He has developed his career as a political commentator and activist by covering a variety of subjects through this podcast, as well as through columns and editorials. As an author, his poetry and short stories center around the plight of the American working class; tackling subjects of poverty, addiction, abuse, and systemic oppression.