With Joker now playing in theaters, audiences can decide for themselves whether the DC Comics film is a subversive work of art, a dangerous document, or just a mediocre movie. The film, which makes a protagonist out of a deranged white man with a hunger for murder, has been at the center of controversy for months, with skeptics suggesting that it might incite violence in some audience members and others waving off such concerns. The debate, more than any particular threats, have put theater chains and entire cities on high alert, with extra security at some cinemas and the movie even banned in select theaters (including the Aurora, CO theater where The Dark Knight Rises shooting took place in 2012).
Both director/co-writer Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have downplayed the controversy and concerns about violence, sentiments that seem to represent a consensus amongst those involved in the project. SYFY WIRE rang up the project's cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, to get his take on the hot button issue that's dominated headlines for weeks.
***Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Joker below***
"The Joker, first and foremost, is a comic book character. I believe a villain doesn’t work as a villain unless you somehow connect with that person and their motivations," Sher tells SYFY WIRE.
Since The Hangover in 2009, Sher has served as Phillips's director of photography, and his loyalty certainly shows. Like Phillips, he's quick to point out that the Joker isn't the only popular comic book antagonist people connect with. "I remember even in Black Panther, loving the Michael B. Jordan villain [Killmonger] because he was extremely clear in his intent, albeit a terrible one," Sher says. "He was so clear, that even when they go to try to save him he’s like, ‘No, I’d rather die because of my principles of this misbegotten thing.' That villain works really well."
Set in a gritty, troubled Gotham City (circa roughly 1981), the film follows Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a clown-for-hire with deeply rooted psychological issues that are exacerbated by a number of difficult circumstances and tragedies. He learns dark secrets about his own upbringing, gets fired from his clown gig, fails at a comedy open mic, and suffers from the fallout of a city budget cut that puts the kybosh on his weekly therapy sessions. The indignities and his poor reactions combine to send the character down a dark path of violence and anarchy. In other words, this is an origin story of how Batman's greatest and most iconic enemy was born.
"What we were trying to do was tell a human story about a man who has basically been forgotten by society. He does do bad things, but that’s the Joker: as a character, he does bad things," says Sher. "It’s inherent in [who he is]. I like movies that provoke me; I don’t think, personally, that movies provoke people to violence. I think there are so many things that provoke people to violence. I think that the number one thing that provokes people to violence, is all the conditions that we are in that allow us to forget our humanity. When people feel lonely and desperate and they feel like they’re not part of society, it allows them to lose their way."
To Sher, Arthur is a character to be pitied but never emulated. More importantly, he believes that the film is not reckless with its interpretation of insanity and wanton bloodshed. As Arthur tries to tell his social worker in the story, he wants help for his constant flow of "bad thoughts," but no one ever really listens. Within that context, Joker could — somewhat controversially — be viewed as a commentary on the need for improved mental healthcare in the United States. By the very end, Fleck has kickstarted a revolution, however incidentally, that might be seen as a self-aware parable for the infectious nature of violence.
"This movie is not irresponsible," Sher insists. "In fact, there’s a very poignant and important thing that happens during a very specific inciting incident early in the movie, which I think speaks to some of the responsibility the movie has as it takes on complicated issues. And although it’s not a political film by any stretch of the imagination, we were trying to wade in those waters in a way.
"We were certainly aware of the responsibility and the fact that you’re humanizing a character that does bad things," he continues. "But there are lots of movies that do that and I think partly one of the reasons why this movie is impactful for people, is because we try to keep it real. It’s a challenging movie because you’re conflicted. You feel great empathy for Arthur and when he does bad things, that’s conflicting."
Not really looking to make a traditional "comic book movie," Phillips opted to channel the intense psychological character studies of the 1970s and early '80s. In multiple interviews, the filmmaker has cited Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983) as influences on Joker. Both Scorsese flicks deal with highly-troubled individuals (both of whom are played by Robert De Niro, who has a role in Joker) and in the case of the latter, depicts a mentally unstable comedian who turns to crime when his career doesn't turn out the way he had hoped. In talking about these influences, Sher thinks that Taxi Driver is way more violent than Joker could ever be.
"That movie is incredibly hardcore in light of this conversation that people have about [Joker]," Sher says. "First of all, I think 95 percent of it is from people who haven’t seen the movie yet. One of my concerns is they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, it’s certainly not dangerous because it doesn’t take that line and that stance of fetishizing violence in the way that we expect it based on the conversation that preceded it.’ I think it’s almost causing an undue expectation that isn’t fair. At the very least, I wish some of these conversations would happen post the movie coming out, rather than a bunch of people surmising that it’s glorifying whatever they think it is."
Sher firmly believes that Joker should incite a back-and-forth about the state of the world. The film is bleak, to be sure, but he suggests it is also sticking a cracked mirror in front of our faces, forcing us to confront the ugly reflection of truth staring back at us.
"I think the power of a good movie is that it makes you think and it’s thought-provoking. I’ve lived in a world with first-person shooter games for a long time now. I don’t play them, I don’t have an issue with people playing them, and I frankly don’t think they [inspire violence in people]. Those things really put you, potentially, in the position of a person doing damage, and I don’t think that has an influence on people," Sher concludes. "I just don’t think that that’s the responsibility of a film. And yet, I also recognize that these killings and these things happening in our society are horrible. I'm as affected by them as anybody... I’d rather have the conversation because a movie like this forces us to have this conversation than to just keep living in a world of saccharine, non-controversial movies in which we never think about those things."
Joker is out in theaters now.