“Joker” with Joaquin Phoenix is the highest earning R-rated movie of all time, and it has struck a nerve among American media pundits and reviewers. The movie has been heralded in extreme opposites terms as something that might motivate mass shooters—or alternately as a “masterpiece” of filmmaking that could open minds on the subject of violence in society. Really it’s neither. Joker isn’t the kind of movie that typically motivates a vulnerable person toward violence, nor is it a masterpiece that will enlighten. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s rather mundane and retrogressive to anyone who has studied media and violence in our society.
Violent movies or video games don’t make well-adjusted people violent. There’s loads of studies that support this idea. While media may sometimes have a triggering affect on people who have witnessed real-life violence that left them with post-traumatic stress disorder, the deciding factor is real-life violence—not art or expression. If watching violent movies had an affect on a healthy person to commit violence, then people who spend more hours watching violence—and people who write and create it—would be more violent than people who don’t watch it. This isn’t the case; there’s no meaningful correlation between hours watching fake violence and going out to commit real violence. Again, real life violence and unresolved trauma is what makes people violent, not watching movies.
This is the message that “Joker” tries on some level to impart to the audience, and perhaps why some have called it a masterpiece. Arthur Fleck is a guy who has dark thoughts and feels like he has to put on a happy face to make it through life. He has forgotten the trauma of his childhood, and he has no way to work through it, to talk about it and understand it. This lack of an outlet is pushing him toward psychosis, and when all avenues are shut off and his psychoactive drugs are taken away by society, his dire life circumstances start bringing the forgotten trauma to the surface.
Up until this time, it appears the way that Arthur Fleck deals with his repressed trauma is to take care of his mother, work as a clown, and aspire to be a comedian. The lost memories of being tied to a radiator (and no doubt other darker things) get short-circuited in his memory by a strange and inappropriately timed laugh. This makes him awkward and potentially a victim for ridicule and more violence directed at him. For such a person with unresolved trauma, the world becomes a dichotomy of abuser and victim. The only way to escape the rising trauma and repeated victimhood is to become the abuser—and the abuses have to become greater and greater to keep the past trauma buried.
“Joker” does a good job of showing how society starts to break down when people have no way to resolve past traumas and piece together a meaningful life. It hints at the idea that “the haves”—people with lots of money—play this dichotomy to their favor so there’s a source of cheap labor to increase their fortunes and power. The unrest created by the Joker’s real violence of shooting one of the “haves” on live television motivates the murder of Bruce Wayne’s father and mother. “The Batman” is effectively born by witnessing this traumatic childhood moment. The movie shows violence as a malignancy that spreads through society, one traumatized child creating another.
While “Joker” does give some pause for thought on the effects of real violence versus media violence, it doesn’t rise to the level of masterpiece in cinema because frankly it’s only a comic book movie. Few who watch it will mine the possible depths, and the media pundits and reviewers who get the most air time in America seem to have never studied cinema (or much of anything beyond their own ego gratification). Instead they rely on age-old stereotypes and extremist notions that don’t enlighten, and they create further divide to maintain their status quo of fame.
If you watch this movie or other violent movies and feel like hurting people or it triggers unresolved feelings of trauma, it’s a chance to get a handle on these demons, not give into them or see violent expression as inevitable. It’s just a movie, after all.