Look Back in Anger: 'Joker' Rekindles Fear, Paranoia, Sorrow 

Opens Friday, Oct. 4

click to enlarge 'Joker' opens Friday, Oct. 4 across the country.

Courtesy Warner Bros,

'Joker' opens Friday, Oct. 4 across the country.

Anarchistic. Knotted. Terrifying. Hyperbole flooded my brain as I struggled to pound out a thesis on Joker—a terrifying volcano of a film about to erupt onto the pop culture—on several attempts. And then a reader had the well-timed inclination of tossing some of my own words back in my face.

It was seven years ago in this very publication that I wrote about the long shadow of a mass shooting cast across the screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. On July 20, 2012, a gunman, masquerading as The Joker, killed 12 people and wounded dozens more. In an essay for the July 25, 2012, edition of BW, I wrote, "Popular culture allows us—possibly even invites us—to accept fictional violence in stylized fashion. Violent acts in movies, television and virtual gaming specifically target young American men, many of whom have an unhealthy hunger to be noticed."

While millions of filmgoers are expected to fill cinemas this coming weekend to see Joker, my prayer is that we'll be able to see the film as a platform for a bigger conversation. In its proper context, Joker, and particularly a breathtaking performance from Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, begs us to acknowledge the ever-rising tide of domestic terrorism and an obsession with firearms, specifically among among isolated, young American men. But if comic book fanboys choose to see Joker as just another spinoff of the DC Universe, please count me out. Sorry, but this is not your father's Batman.

Jodie Foster once said "cruelty might be very human; and it might be cultural, but it is not acceptable." At the time, Foster was accepting the second of her two Oscars, and was speaking truth to Hollywood power and a global television audience. By then, we had become sadly aware that Foster had become a real-world obsession of the delusional, would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. After attempting to shoot President Reagan in 1981, it was revealed that Hinckley had been infatuated with Foster's fictional character in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, a story about the delusions of another firearm-obsessed young man.

Truth be told, each of these dots connect.Taxi Driver is a wicked stepfather to Joker. Their cinematic themes are disturbingly parallel; and Robert DeNiro not-so-coincidentally appears in both films, first as obsessor, then as prey.

As for the Aurora, Colorado, cineplex, where tragedy stuck in 2012, owners there now say they won't screen Joker anytime soon. In fact, five family members of Aurora shooting victims wrote a letter to the film's distributor, Warner Bros., expressing deep concern over the movie's content:

"We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression. But as anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: With great power comes great responsibility. That's why we're calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns."

In response, a spokesperson for Warner Bros. wrote, in part:

"Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero."

That may well be true. But Joker's lead character, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), suffers from severe mental illness; and while that may explain Fleck's spiral into psychosis, his story takes a huge, unfortunate leap toward how ready Fleck is to pick up a gun. Therein lies my biggest struggle with Joker as a form of entertainment. To be sure, Phoenix's is one of the finest actors of his generation. But this film is so visceral, so volcanic, that I dread its intent to provoke.

Conflicting matters even further, Warner Bros., in a ham-fisted, ill-advised public relations move on Sept. 29, banned journalists from the red carpet at film's Hollywood premiere. Heaven forbid, a reporter might have asked filmmakers about their story's suggestive nature. A Warner Bros. spokesperson said, "A lot has been said about Joker, and we just feel it's time for people to see the film." Well, let's hope that such a questionable decision by Warner Bros. was not a harbinger of its attempt to chill free speech in favor of homogenized press notices and better box office returns.

Finally, I'll quote... well, myself. Seven years ago, in the aforementioned essay, titled, "The Right Film at the Wrong Time," I wrote, "The facade lives."

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Joker
Rated R · 122 minutes · 2019
Official Site: www.jokermovie.net
Director: Todd Phillips
Producer: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Michael Uslan, Walter Hamada, Aaron Gilbert, Joseph Garner, Richard Baratta and Bruce Berman
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Rocco Luna, Marc Maron, Sondra James, Murphy Guyer, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Carrie Putrello, Sharon Washington, Hannah Gross, Frank Wood, Brian Henry and April Grace

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