Directed by: Todd Phillips

Joker centers on the most powerful performance of the year: Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. He deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor. Phoenix is in almost every frame of the film and has been asked to play a character so physically and emotionally damaged that it must have been extremely taxing for him. He lost a lot of weight to play the role, but the really difficult part of the performance is psychological. He plays a psychopath, though one with a history, tied both to himself and his mother. Much of the film deals with the abuse he suffers from others and the uncertainty and horror of revelations he experiences about his mother and her former employer, Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne, who of course grows up to be Batman. Add to this, his rejection by almost everyone he meets, and the slow descent into complete mental breakdown at the end of the film forces the viewer, against everything that one wants to feel, to be sympathetic to his horrific plight.

This journey wrenches the viewer back and forth between acts of extreme violence, comic episodes (Fleck works as a clown, though little humor results directly from his profession), and scenes of heart-breaking inquiry by Fleck, as he seeks to find out why he is the way he is. Not surprisingly, this makes the film difficult to watch, and it is not for the squeamish of heart. Of course getting the viewer so engrossed in what is happening on screen that they cannot pull back from it to an objective place is the mark of superb writing. Similarly, as grotesque and bloody as this film is, the viewer has to admit that the production values are very high, most of all the performance by Phoenix.

One of the most disturbing things about the movie—and, yes, disturbing is a very good word to describe its influence—is the thoroughgoing reality of its presentation. There is no reliance on super-powers or supernaturalism of any kind; there is not even an ounce of “cartoonish” feel, even though it is set in the traditional Gotham of Batman and Robin. One feels like one is watching something that could happen any moment, at least until the end, when chaos so breaks out in the streets that the scenes become too much to believe. By that time, though, the damage to the viewer is done. Again, great filmmaking, but tough on the viewer.

One reason I teach techniques of film-viewing that are centered in helping people to objectify the experience, is the belief that to keep up with what is happening in our society and to be fully aware of what our neighbors are experiencing, requires not only our acquaintance with the arts and what others are saying about them, but also the experience of them ourselves. We need to be able to come out on the other side of the film-going experience with critiques that demonstrate the strength, goodness, and relevance of the good news we believe to a desperately hopeless and alienated world. We cannot do this without experiencing at least some of that hopelessness and alienation found in found in movies like Joker. But the hard work of seeing the film, analyzing it, and comparing its themes and ideas to those of Scripture and the Christian faith takes knowledge and practice, and I admit that not everyone can do it.

More can and should do it than try to, however, and I believe we need Christians to step up in these perilous times. The only explanation for the mammoth box-office response Joker has received is that there are literally millions of kids out there (and maybe not a few adults), who are so pushed to the breaking point by their own states of alienation, loneliness, and especially hopelessness, that they find solace (let us pray not motivation!) in Joker’s finally letting loose and killing without conscience. It actually is worse than that: he explicitly states that, rather than feeling bad about his murders, he finds an exhilaration in them. This movie has a dark and destructive take on life in our world, and, if its take is true, then we are certainly lost, and there is no hope but to burn everything down and hope against hope that something better, some new, better society, will rise phoenix-like from the ashes, as some of the radicals in the sixties suggested.

But Christians know the dispiriting message of Joker is not true, that there is hope and goodness in the world, that the love of God will triumph in the end, and has already, in Christ and His cross and resurrection. To be able to articulate this good news, though, to a world skeptical of its messengers will take those messengers going the extra mile by walking alongside the skeptics on their journeys, and, after they have taken their best shots at instilling in us thoughts of chaos and destruction, showing them a better way.

There are plenty of good reasons for you, or any individual Christian, to “flee temptation” and refuse to see Joker. But Joker is not the only popular horror story out there; a sudden flood of movies and television shows about psychopaths has surged recently, and I have watched a good many of them. Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Netflix’s Mindhunter and Unbelievable come to mind, though the latter has a “happy” ending. These are dangerous and destructive times in the arts, showing us the raw and violently disturbing effects of the Fall in graphic detail, and we better realize what recounting these stories so realistically, even when any particular story does have a hopeful ending, might do to us as a society.

Drew Trotter

April 21, 2020

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