Joker Earns Its Accolades, but Offers Much More

By guest author Samuel R. Staley
October 19, 2019

Joker is billed as a psychological thriller, and indeed it is… to the core. An origin story for the Batman villain, this dark drama is the blockbuster its creators had hoped, already earning nearly $300 million worldwideJoker deserves the accolades and the revenue. Perhaps more importantly (long term), the movie has the potential to change the public discussion on an important dimension to a pressing social issue: violence, particularly mass violence perpetrated by so-called “lone wolves”.

Unlike the camped-up version in the TV series or the serious but comic DC Comics versions in the various earlier Batman movies, this Joker is disturbingly real. Combined with a masterful performance by Joaquin Phoenix (GladiatorWalk the LineThe Master) in the title role and an unusually artful and complete plot written by writer-director Todd Phillips (BoratThe Hangover Trilogy), Joker will probably compete for all the major awards this year. Certainly, Joker is one of the most, if not the most, inventive, irreverent, and sophisticated movies yet to appear in wide release in U.S. theaters.

Joaquin Phoenix brilliantly plays Arthur Fleck, a struggling comedian working for a rent-a-clown business run on shoe-string in Gotham (aka New York City) in the early 1980s. Fleck suffers from a Tourette syndrome-like disorder that manifests itself in uncontrollable laughter. Whether he is mentally ill, has a neurological disorder, or simply unstable, is never quite clear. But therein rests the power of the story.

Phillips’ story, co-written with Scott Silver (The Finest HoursX-Men Origins: Wolverine8 Mile), is uncommonly insightful into the world of some of the most marginalized people in society—those living on the edge, one paycheck or prescription away from personal catastrophe. Phillips and Silver do an excellent job of building empathy for Fleck, establishing a compelling level of tension that the audience knows, or at least is thinking, will lead to tragedy. The tightrope Fleck’s character walks is gripping, and it’s never quite clear if, or when, Fleck actually descends into real madness. This ambiguity, viewed from the point of view of Fleck, means that the audience continues to empathize with the main character even as chaos erupts around him.

The plot is so well-crafted and intricate, providing more detail would inevitably result in spoilers this early in its wide-release. However, outstanding performances by Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother, and Robert De Niro as a late-night comedian and talk show host Murray Franklin are critical to Fleck’s (and the story’s) progression. Penny Fleck makes the journey personal, while Murray Franklin carries the weight of forcing audiences to reflect on a community’s (Gotham’s) values and social structure more broadly. A cast of critical supporting characters played by Zazie BeetsGlen FleshlerBill Camp, and Shea Whigham and others round out the cast.

Joker deserves to be more than just to be seen in movie theaters. Phoenix’s performance under the direction of Phillips begs for a larger conversation about how individuals become so marginalized, so alienated, they fall into mercilessly destructive behavior. Few movies have captured the ambiguities and subtle differences between mental illness, chronic disorders, personal responsibility so well. The fact that most in the audience can’t tell the difference is biting social commentary in itself.

But in an era when when individuals carry a mini-arsenal to the top floors of a hotel to kill scores of innocents, target places of worship to carry out delusional plans to eradicate people they don’t like, and choose mass murder to redress personal grievances against their peers, a movie like Joker can lead us to a pause and perhaps rethink our own basic beliefs and perceptions. Stopping mass shootings won’t be solved by stricter gun control laws because they don’t address the core of the problem, which is both personal and social.

The vast majority of mentally ill people do not commit violent acts. The vast majority of those with neurological disorders do not rebel against an unwelcoming or excluding society by killing their tormentors. Most people experiencing bullying, disrespect, and social marginalization do not seek revenge on their peers. But some do. Understanding why they do is key to finding sustainable and effective prevention measures and creating a safer community that allows all individuals to thrive. Joker, the movie, has a role to play in the discussion. Plus, it’s a really, really good movie.

NOTE: In addition to his role as a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Sam Staley serves on the Board of Directors of Unhoused Humanity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding sustainable housing solutions for the homeless in Tallahassee where he also serves as board chair. He also has designed curriculum and teaches courses at Florida State University on how an entrepreneurial approach to addressing social issues through privately run, financially sustainable businesses—social entrepreneurship—can address problems faced by those existing on the margins of family, community, and society.

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