Films have the power to create powerful messages and can affect the stability of society. These messages can also promote detrimental themes and ideas, so it is an objective of society to determine whether a film is harmful. The film Joker explores the violent transition of Arthur Fleck, an individual who in the rough social circumstances of his city of Gotham, is led to committing violent acts of murder as an expression of his grievances. Thus, the question is posed, does Todd Phillips’ Joker promote mass shootings and attacks, through its light depictions of violence. This paper advocates for the case that, Todd Phillips’ film Joker is a socially reflective film, which fails to inspire acts of violence, since it establishes a clear distinction from reality and actively dissuades its audience from making those connections. This case recognizes that violence within movies can support and inspire acts of violence, but Joker takes the necessary precautions to compensate for its violent imagery. Arthur Fleck is later mentioned as Joker, but is primarily referred to as Arthur, so this paper will only make mention of the character as Arthur.
2. A Separation from Reality
There is a misconception regarding Joker, in that, the movie is politically charged, due to its portrayal of mental health support systems and its similarities with early 90’s New York. This line of thinking is subject to critical analysis, because on the same hand, Joker leaves out the crucial political setting of the film.
Joker, within Elizabeth Haas’ political content and intent spectrum (Hass 11), is a movie with both low political content and intent. The latter portion of the statement will be addressed in the next section. This is because the movie is more of a social reflection, rather than an exploration of the intricate politics surrounding its plot. In Elizabeth Haas’ spectrum, content refers to the literal portrayal of political institutions, objects, and institutions within films (Haas 11). While Joker presents the audience political institutions, such as the media, politicians, and social support, the film fails to refuse to directly name or reference real world political instruments. The main protagonist of Joker is Arthur Fleck, a man who after being beaten and left to rot, is left on a downward spiral towards chaos and destruction. One specific key support that he had lost during this trip, was his access to social support checkups and medication. When Arthur is in a routine checkup with his social support clerk, she states (Phillips, Joker, 00:42:00):
SOCIAL SUPPORT CLERK: They’ve cut our funding. We’re closing down our offices next week. The city has cut funding across the board, social services is a part of it. This is the last time we’ll be meeting.” …
ARTHUR: How am I supposed to get my medication now? Who do I talk to?
SOCIAL SUPPORT CLERK: I’m sorry, Arthur
There is no further attempt nor scene which explains the context of the city’s budget cuts. Since the social worker does not give any further insight into the reasoning behind the city’s cuts, the viewers are disconnected from the conflict at hand. This alienation feels constant throughout the movie, as the conflict resides around an ever changing and increasingly violent society, the political landscape continuously changes without explanation.
While the content of the film give insight into Joker, its camera work and aesthetic are an extension of the information presented, as it is the product of meticulous planning from its creators. Formalism, according to Haas, is the representation of imagery through a distortion of reality to convey its message and imagery (Haas 35). In Joker, the camera work and mise-en-scene (staging) presents the film in a formalistic image, which come to break its viewers immersion and relation to the film. One such instance occurs when, after Arthur’s outburst, he is detained by police and placed in the back of a police cruiser. Whilst being driven to a police station, Arthur revels in the chaos that had erupted in response to his violent actions. Afterwards, a truck smashes into the police vehicle, being driven by a supporter of Arthur. Arthur is then dragged and placed upon the top of the police cruiser, and after he regains consciousness, he realizes that a crowd is cheering him on. Arthur then stands and indulges in the admiration of the crowd, from which the scene immediately transitions to Arthur being questioned in mental health hospital (Phillips, Joker, 01:52:00-01:54:00). Within the scene, there are multitudes of camera cuts and shots, shifting from one perspective to another without continuity. All the while, Arthur is placed at the center of the crowd, its cheers exaggerating his larger than life being, which is then contrasted by his immediate placement in a mental institution. This extensive use of cinematography reinforces the film’s formalistic approach, as the audience is reminded with every camera shift and angle that they are watching a movie.
Studies have shown, that movies can evoke emotion, including feelings of aggression and resentment. The following findings are referenced from Barrie, Gunter’s study, Media Violence: Is there a Case for Causality, page 1098. In this experimental research, it was found that children which had been shown films containing fictional violence, that were told that the films were based upon reality, were found to contain higher rates of aggression towards other children. But in contrast, when viewers of fictionalized violent scenes were constantly reminded of its distinction from real life, the children were found to have lower rates of aggression towards those peers that had previously angered them. Throughout Joker the audience is constantly reminded of its distinction from reality, whether it would be from its lack of information to its formalistic imagery, audiences are forcibly given the knowledge that Gotham’s society is distinct from our own. It may contain similar institutions and hardships to our own world, but these illusions are broken by the stark contrast of the movie cinematography and missing political content.
3. A Societal Message Open to Discretion
Joker has been released in a time, whereby mass shootings and mental health, has been a large topic of discourse. Hence, some individuals may interpret Phillips’ message as political, rather than the economically driven social message it was intended to be. This political idea has been further perpetuated, since politically oriented peoples are willing to disregard the desired function of Joker and use the film as a platform to vocalize their societal disdain.
The political intent of a film, according to Haas, is the political message that is derived from the film’s attempt to persuade or influence its viewers (Haas 9-10). Joker never attempts to forward a political message, but rather, reflects upon societies failures and its faults. Arthur is bullied by the media and left without medication through the city’s budget cuts. But when Arthur is on the TV talk show, which had previously painted Arthur as a laughing stock, he reveals that he had been the cause of the recent murders in the city. Then after, Arthur gives an inflamed speech, “What do you get, when you cross a mentally ill loner, with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash! I’ll tell you what you get: you get what you f*cking deserve, *Arthur then proceeds to shoot the talk show host*” (Phillips, Joker, 01:46:00). This passionate statement only attacks society as a body, rather than the media or political institutions that had previously disowned him. This targeting of humanity leaves the viewer incapable in addressing the issues derived within the film. Since the audience is not given a clear-cut target or message, viewers are polarized in their interpretations of those to blame and become demobilized due to the according infighting. Due to the inconclusive nature of the film’s message, any argument that advocates for this message cannot be based upon the direct words spoken in the film, but rather, on the circumstantial evidence within the film. Therefore, Joker cannot be relied upon, when interpreting the film as a political message. This direction is intentional as the message is dictated by the producer’s and director’s working on the movie.
Both the producer and director of a movie have significant weight in the outcome of a film, as both roles have final say on the creative direction of a movie (Haas 27). The film Joker had been both produced and directed by Todd Phillips. Prior to the film,Phillips had created multiple movies, including the Hangover trilogy and War Dogs. The former being a staple American comedy whilst the latter is a dark bombastic comedy. This section will primarily focus on War Dogs, as it highlights a transition for Phillips as a character. War Dogs is a heavily fictionalized and dramatized movie, based upon the story of Efraim Diveroli, brought to light in 2011 through a Rolling Stone article. Diveroli is a young individual who had won a 300 million weapons contract from the American government. Instead of fulfilling this contract legitimately, by providing the equipment through a legal manufacturer, Diveroli cheated the American government by shipping decades old Chinese ammunition, breaking the United States’ ammunitions embargo on China. This crime was only possible through a complex political and legal loophole, which allowed people to bypass the regulatory bodies that verified the legitimacy of its munition suppliers. Phillip’s had taken this story and created the film War Dogs. This depiction of Diveroli’s story was bleak, dramatic, and spruced with comedy. But, rather fixate on the deep politics that allowed such a story to happen, Phillips focused on entertaining the audience as he had done with the Hangover trilogy. This trend would continue onto Joker, even as Phillips had a desire to explore darker themes, he maintained his key objective of pleasuring his audience. There are many definitions of entertaining, but as a Hollywood director, one is expected and rewarded to create a compelling movie by captivating the most people possible. As Hollywood is a money machine, which has a single-minded intention – to continuously generate capital. This mentality is instilled within each individual within Hollywood and is necessary in co-operating with this institutional giant (Haas 27). The context surrounding the film’s creation would materialize in the creative compromises Phillips made as a director. This resulted in the depoliticization of Diveroli’s original story, to appeal to a wide net of individuals, with the intent of avoiding any adverse backlash from the film.
Through Phillips’ socially neutral efforts, audiences of Joker are left separated from the film, as the movie consistently undermines the audience’s ability to connect with the imagery at hand. Whether through, the lack of political targeting or the depoliticizing direction, one thing is constant, that Joker attempts to cripple the audience’s ability to connect the film with their own reality. And as previously noted by Haas, once the audience has a consistent understanding that the movie, they are viewing, is not an accurate portrayal of the world, all possible influence that the film may have at provoking the audience is lost.
The findings of Haas have shown, for Joker to support mass violence, it must
perpetuate its narrative in such a manor, which tricks the viewer into
believing that the film is a perception of reality. But through the content and
camera work of the film, viewers cannot directly relate to the film by
associating their world with the formalistic atmosphere of Joker; while the intent and creative production, undermine any
ability to impose one’s society onto the film. Thus, Todd Phillips’ movie Joker cannot support violence, as the
film intentionally creates an obvious division between itself and the real
world. The interpretation of a film is just as important as the content within
a film, but when left to the viewer, these interpretations are subject to
political bias. It is then, in the best interest of society to challenge ideological
interpretations of the world, so that the collective at hand may benefit from
finding the natural truth
Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, 2015.
Gunter, Barrie. “Media Violence: Is there a Case for Causality?” American Behavioral Scientist 51.8 (2008): 1061-122.