Directed by: Todd Phillips

Joker centers on the most powerful performance of 2019 in film: Joaquin Phoenix is the title character, and 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 very difficult to watch, and it is not for the squeamish of heart, but of course this is the mark of superb writing and filmmaking, i.e. getting the viewer so engrossed in what is happening on screen that they cannot pull back from it to an objective place. 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 and certainly not 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.

I believe that to keep up with what is happening in our society and to be fully aware of what our neighbors are experiencing, reading what others say about the arts isn’t enough–we need to experience films and other art directly. This is one reason I teach techniques of film-viewing that are centered in helping people to objectify the experience. We need to be able to come out on the other side of the film-going experience with critiques that demonstrate to a desperately hopeless and alienated world the strength, goodness, and relevance of the good news we believe. We cannot do this without experiencing the movie itself. 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 this work than try to, however, and I believe we need them to step up in these perilous times. The mammoth box-office response to Joker suggests 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. The Joker’s spiritual resolution is actually worse than that: he explicitly states that, rather than feeling bad about his murders, he finds an exhilaration in them. This movie has a very 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, and that love will triumph in the end, and has already triumphed 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, having allowed them to take their best shots at instilling in us thoughts of chaos and destruction, showing them a better way.

Drew Trotter

April 21, 2020

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