Since the trailer for Joker dropped months ago, the internet has been churning out an overwhelming volume of meme content related to director Todd Phillips’ 2019 adaptation of the much-loved and oft-revised villain/anti-hero. Incels and memers worldwide have embraced the character as an avatar, both ironically and otherwise.
The film sees Joaquin Phoenix deliver a mesmerizing and acclaim-worthy performance once again, as Phillips holds a mirror up to society. What that mirror shows is a reflection that many in the review community are loathe to behold.
Users of websites such as 4chan have been making increasingly edgy jokes and veiled threats surrounding screenings of the film, which prompted the FBI to put out an internal memo warning of the potential for violence at screenings, reminiscent of the 2012 Aurora theatre shooting. The mainstream media seem disturbingly adamant that the film will create real-world violence; they do, after all, thrive on tragedy.
What has people so worried about Joker? Let’s dive
Casting of De Niro – Parallels Between Joker and Taxi Driver
Firstly, the casting choice of Robert De Niro as one of the main antagonists, I feel, was a deliberate nod to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). The classic film saw De Niro play a dispossessed, disenfranchised man with maladaptive tendencies seeking existential meaning in a metropolitan setting almost identical to that of Joker. Grappling with feelings of inadequacy and unsated masculine urges to be accepted and cherished, he found meaning and social esteem through shockingly violent brutality. The classic example of an anti-hero.
Viewers of Joker will potentially notice that there are distinct overlapping themes on display. While the movies may have been made over 40 years apart, Joker seems to exist within a universe that both exists in a stylised dystopic re-imagining of eras past, while being very urgent and modern in its sensibilities.
The casting choice of De Niro was also curiously similar to the role reversal of having John Hurt play the dissident role of Winston Smith in 1984 and then play the inverse big-brotheresque role of High Chancellor Adam Sutler in V for Vendetta (2005). A little easter egg for those in the know.
Cinematography wise, the liberal use of dreamlike surreal scenes in the film leaves the viewer doubting if any of what they are seeing is in fact real, or the fevered fantasies of an institutionalised madman. Fans of David Lynch will recognise this technique immediately. What is real, what is imagined? In the end it doesn’t really matter, what matters is the exposition.
Ego, Id & Super-ego
Speaking of David Lynch, the themes of Joker have many overlapping elements with Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway in its exploration of the relationship between the ego, id and super-ego. Similar to the protagonist of Lost Highway, Arthur Fleck finds himself rejected and undermined at every turn, his nature, shortcomings and sensitivity exploited by his employer, work colleagues and even his own mother.
Arthur’s ego is perpetually taking a beating. This eternally downtrodden and battered ego eventually shatters, revealing the primal instincts of the id that had long been suppressed. This savage persona proceeds to gleefully dispatch the various personified representatives of the super-ego.
The film’s transition from the ego destruction of Arthur to the metamorphosis into Joker is spectacular to behold. The acting from Phoenix is at a level of mastery that few alive today are able to rival.
Joker takes what he wants, casting aside any inhibitions that may have overridden his idiosyncratic desires toward self-expression. He romances the object of his desire, he shoots dead those assholes who ‘deserve it’ and takes what has been denied him for his whole life.
This is the essence of the all-too-familiar psychotic break that finds its expression in violence across our world. Many self-destruct; some decide to drag others down with them.
Mixed Messages Towards ‘Incels’ – Falling Thru the Cracks – Third Wave Feminism
Young men in the post-third-wave-feminism world receive mixed signals regarding their social worth. On one hand, many of those who find themselves lacking the confidence, wealth, charisma or physical prowess necessary to attract high-status females are openly ridiculed. When those men subsequently find self-worth in single life, they are then lambasted as incels, ‘neckbeards’, ‘basement dwellers’, etc. For many, there is no way to win when a society obsessed with hypergamy and tearing down the illuminati-esque boogeyman of the ‘patriarchy’ seeks to marginalise them.
Unfortunately, as a result of continued rejection, ridicule and scorn, many of these young men turn to self-harm, nihilism, misanthropy and outward expressions of violence due to the anomy that seeps into their lives.
The 24-hour news cycle then seizes upon these tragic acts of violence and plasters the perpetrators’ names across screens for the world to look upon with disgust and, in some cases, envy.
When almost one in 10 Australians is on anti-depressants (Hari 2018), the annual number of attempted suicides is 65,300 (Lifeline 2015) and youth unemployment is sitting between 10 and 15% (Vandenbroek 2018) with the male rate noticeably higher, the need to pay attention to those men falling through the cracks is more important than it has ever been.
Modern adversarial feminism (though admittedly not a monolithic entity) seems unable or unwilling to address the issue of female-on-male violence and harm often perpetrated by wives, girlfriends and mothers. Until it does, there will continue to be tragic expressions of desperation by young men.
As for the quality of the film itself, I rate it 4 out of 5 and highly recommend it. The similarities to themes already explored in other films such as Taxi Driver and Lost Highway create a sense of familiarity in a highly alienating and compelling cinema experience, however this familiarity detracts from the sheer originality and thus my rating.
Hari, Johann 2018, ‘Nearly one in 10 Australians take antidepressants. Are there other solutions?’, SMH, 2 February, viewed 4 October 2019, <https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/nearly-one-in-10-australians-take-antidepressants-are-there-other-solutions-20180116-h0jaxx.html>.
Lifeline 2015, Statistics
on Suicide in Australia, viewed 4 October 2019, <https://www.lifeline.org.au/about-lifeline/lifeline-information/statistics-on-suicide-in-australia>.
2018, Youth unemployment statistics: a quick guide, Parliament of
Australia, Statistics and Mapping Section, viewed 4 October 2019, <https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1718/Quick_Guides/YthUnemployment>.