I nearly didn’t go because I’d heard that it was pretty “gritty” and that – like The Blair Witch Project in 1999 – some guys in America had left the cinema because they couldn’t handle the intensity of what they were watching.
Still, wooed by curiosity and the acting excellence of Joaquin Phoenix, I decided to head to the cinema to give it a try.
How was it then that Joker transpired to be arguably the most powerful film I’ve ever seen?
1) Prophetic. Very rarely do you find yourself watching a movie that you realise was made at precisely the right time – ie written and directed and produced and edited in order for it to be viewable for the public at the optimum time to coincide with the increasingly tumultuous events of our ‘real lives’. This is how Joker felt from the outset: a “prophetic” commentary on the hurriedly fragmenting state of our society and culture. Equally as much a profound reflection on how it is that we’ve got to where we are now (callous selfishness and greed combined with unhindered, unchallenged and unparalleled evil) as it is a projection as to where we are surely heading – growing anarchy and lawlessness. Joker is particularly prophetic.
2) Absorbing. Rightly or wrongly, in these days of digital over-stimulation, very few forms of entertainment actually hold my attention for more than a few moments. Joker was an exception and I found myself doing what Odeon promise before every film: ie forgetting myself for an hour or two. The acting masterclass from Phoenix in this film is surely worthy of as many awards as can be given. There isn’t a scene in which Arthur Fleck doesn’t feature – that is 2 hours and 2 minutes of acting supremacy around which all other acting performances in the film, and musical scores, cinematic filters and editing techniques, find their fulcrum. This poignant portrayal of a socially abused/neglected son, mentally deranged colleague and libellous child entertainer simply has to be honoured by the powers that be. If you have ever experienced bullying, rejection, misunderstanding, hurt, slander or a chronic lack of civility, you’ll be uniquely moved by this film. Joker is particularly absorbing.
3) Mental Illness. It’s understandable that our mental health is getting more attention these days than our physical health, and that’s not to say that we don’t talk much about physical health. Our individual and collective mental health has been grossly neglected as an area of personal and corporate life for centuries. (This is partly why we produced The Bothy Sessions last year). While it is true that the Western world’s obesity pandemic is very serious, I would argue that the symptoms of our mental illnesses (whether “merely” anxiety and depression or worse) are more important. When my mental health was seriously strained in 2000, I would absolutely rather have had two broken legs than the persistent throb of mental imbalance. Perhaps this is why I found this film particularly absorbing? After all, our testimony is someone else’s sanity. Joker is particularly moving.
4) Fathers & Sons. I would argue that there is nothing that we all want more than the embrace and warmth of our Father (earthly and heavenly) and it is the suffocation scene of Arthur’s abusive mother where Ridley Scott gets a clear nod from Todd Phillips. (Recall Comodus and Marcus Aurelius). The nuclear blend of paternal/maternal warmth for every child goes without saying but, within that, there is the unique “Father wound” that John Eldredge teaches well about in Wild at Heart. Joker is a film that will make many men cry. Why? Because it touches on the most deranged part of society where the hearts of the fathers have turned away from the hearts of the sons. In a world where many stand before their fathers with arms wide open, they receive a bloodied, broken nose as the final nail in the coffin of their orphaned spirit. Joker is particularly distressing.
5) Uprising. The normal order of things is changing: in politics, in the environment, in the climate and in the atmosphere and fabric of the Church. This isn’t just a note of “anti-establishment” as a homily to the chaos of Brexit or the divided state of America; it’s a reflection on the inadequacy of the entire status quo. The ultimate cause of the current fracturing of society is the compromised state of the Church; the fundamental reason for the atrophy of our cultures is the abdication of the Bride. Joker, paradoxically, is particularly encouraging.
In a church that I used to attend, the rarely transparent pastor would regularly stand at the front of the church and semi-seriously ask how everyone was. Because the response wasn’t ever spontaneously positive or celebratory, he would respond by attempting to gee everyone up with the encouragement to put a smile on our faces, literally drawing a clown’s smile over his own with his two index fingers.
This is not joy; this is not healthy Christian leadership.
Like Arthur Fleck, we aren’t doing too well, are we? We may laugh out loud a lot, we may brandish a garish smile, but we urgently need the healing and leadership of our Head, Christ.
If you’re ok seeing a couple of violent scenes (not graphically but more suggestively) I would say this film is a must-see.