In pm's words
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October 7, 2019, 10:00 AM

Faith Reflection: Joker (2019)


Joker – Is there a glimmer of the Gospel in this?

During the season of Lent, I took it upon myself to write faith reflections on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It turned into something that was far more in-depth than I thought it would be. I really enjoyed writing reflections on those 22 movies. If you’d like to read those you can begin your journey here – from Captain America: The First Avenger all the way through Avengers Endgame.

But, why stop with ONLY the MCU? Even the DC Movies have something to say… sometimes.

First things first – I have not been a fan – in general – of the films based on DC Comics. Well, at least not fans of the more recent entries. I loved the Dark Knight trilogy, Wonder Woman is exceptional, and I was pleasantly surprised by Shazam! The other movies are… not as good.

With that being said, I did enjoy the recent Joker movie. It was beautifully shot, well-acted, and I think has something to say in the midst of its disturbed brutality and violence.

But, first – the synopsis of the movie – so, spoilers ahead y’all. You’ve been warned.

Joker follows the sad, pitiful life of Arthur Fleck – hauntingly and beautifully acted by Joaquin Phoenix. He is a man that you pass by in the streets. You don’t notice him. He doesn’t register to you. If he does register on your ‘radar’ you get a very odd vibe from him – and it isn’t good. There is something different about him and that different is something you typically don’t want to be around.

Arthur feels this too. He is ravaged by his own personal demons and is afflicted with a condition that makes him ‘laugh’ during uncomfortable times in his daily life. When he’s nervous, he’ll laugh. When he’s sad, he’ll laugh. When he’s angry, he’ll laugh. When he’s scared, he’ll laugh.

And, it doesn’t appear that his laugh is very comfortable, it isn’t a deep belly laugh, but a laugh that gets stuck in your throat and seems to cause pain. It appears just as painful to experience for him as it is for others to witness. It is a disturbing laugh.

Because Arthur wants to be noticed, but still be hidden, he is a street performing clown. Twirling signs outside of closing businesses and performing in hospital wings for children.

In all facets of his life, Arthur is ignored and taken advantage of. He’d be a sympathetic character IF we as the audience didn’t already know where this story will end.

Arthur is on medication and sees a therapist provided through public funds in the city of Gotham. Until those funds are cut and those helps for his mental well-being are cut-off. However, even going through the motions of talking to a therapist and receiving his meds, he begins to question whether or not it is actually helping him, because even the person who is supposed to listen to him, still doesn’t seem to care for him.

Eventually, Arthur is fired from his job after a gun he was carrying fell on to the floor while performing at a children’s hospital. On his sad trip back home to his mother’s apartment, he is confronted by three young, rich, financial sector guys. They begin beating on him, and in a brief pause as they laugh at the pain they are causing, Arthur shoots them. He murders all three. And runs home.

Yet, it appears that those murders don’t seem to bother him as much as he thought they would or should. In fact, he is developing a sort of confidence from it. Especially since there are others – who are not the super-rich of Gotham – who look to that act as sort of a ‘call-to-arms’ for the down in the dirt, unlucky, and trampled upon people of Gotham. They wear masks that are eerily reminiscent of the clown make-up that Arthur uses.

As the film progresses, the audience begins to see how Arthur’s psyche is devolving. He vividly imagines people present in points of his life that are not there or even whole scenarios that occur just in his mind. As many reviewers have mentioned, Arthur is an untrustworthy narrator upon his own life.

He clings to the prospect that he’s ‘more important’ than originally believed. At one point, he discovers that he might be the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne and pursues that ‘reality’ in a disturbingly creepy way. Even after a bad stand-up routine that gets shared on a locally filmed and popular talk-show he imagines that this could be his big break. When in actuality, it is an opportunity for the ‘important’ and ‘well-respected’ people of Gotham’s society to once again, point and laugh at those beneath them.

The film culminates as Arthur is asked to appear on that talk-show and requests that the host introduce him as “Joker.” In that following interview, Arthur goes off on the host and the ‘elite’ of Gotham society. Giving a pointed monologue that the elite of Gotham have no idea how difficult life is for those who are not super rich, how they are tired of being the butt of jokes, being stepped over, and more.

Arthur ends the interview by shooting and murdering the host on live television.

This sends the ‘clowns’ on the street into a frenzy.

They loot. They destroy. They attack. They are fed by the brashness of Arthur – now Joker’s – ideology to cause havoc to those in the upper echelon of society.

The film ends with Arthur in a psychiatric hospital with his wrists shackled. The question on the audience’s collective mind is – did any of what we saw actually happen? Was it all in Arthur’s head? Is he ‘visioning’ what the future will hold? Is this something that happened further back in the past?

Those questions are not answered, and we are left to ponder them.

 

As, I look back on this film, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this movie. Even in its disturbed nature. This film has ‘sat with’ me more than any other. I believe, mostly due to the questions that arise based on that final scene in the hospital.

So, where do I find and glimpse the glimmer of the gospel in this film? Let me be first to tell you, that it is difficult. Extremely difficult to see any good that can come from this film.

But, throughout the movie, I could not help but think of Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In that story, Jesus depicts a man at the gates of a wealthy individual who isn’t cared for by anyone. He is literally stepped over each day, and the only ones who even bring Lazarus any sort of mercy are the stray dogs who come to lick his sores.

Both the rich man and Lazarus die, and they end up on opposite sides of the ‘chasm’ that they (and the world) thought they would. Lazarus is free and healthy with Abraham, while the rich man is in turmoil on the other side.

The Rich man sees Lazarus and calls Abraham to send him over so that he might quench his thirst and end (if only briefly) the agony in which he is enduring.

Abraham tells the rich man – no, and that isn’t how this works.

Even in his current state – in agony on the other side of a chasm staring across at Abraham, the rich man doesn’t realize that he’s the one who is wrong. He still feels like he has ‘power and authority’ over Lazarus. Still wants him to serve him because he isn’t the important one in life.

The elite of Gotham are collectively the rich man. Those roles are personified by Thomas Wayne and the talk-show host, Murray Franklin. They don’t care about the ones who aren’t as ‘fortunate’ as they are. They talk down to those people. They use them as punch lines (in this movie both literally and figuratively).

That upsets the people. It upsets – as Thomas Wayne called them – the clowns of society.

Even when things are going terribly, they still can’t see how they’ve contributed to this falling of life or how they continue to push people over and to the side. It is still all about their own well-being, their own self-preservation, their own desires, their own thoughts and plans. It’s all about what works for them.

They are the Rich Man.

I’m not sure if Arthur/Joker is Lazarus. Though, he is one who is stepped over (and stepped on). He is one who is hurting. He is one who needs love, acceptance, and mercy.

However, he takes a bad turn. He is pushed to the limit and lashes out at the society and people who have treated him so harshly and inhumanely (and they have). He revels in the chaos he has caused. He is giddy about the destruction he has helped start.

His ‘laughing’ condition doesn’t seem to pain him as much as it used to. He welcomes it.

That’s not Lazarus. Or at least, not what were led to believe since Lazarus is hanging out with Abraham. I don’t think Arthur/Joker would be in that same spot.

Because, he too falls victim to the sin of the Rich Man. He too doesn’t listen to those around him. He too is only thinking about himself and his desires. He too feels that he is entitled to ‘what’s his.’

If this movie has anything to say, it is that we definitely should care for the people around us. We should listen. We should provide help. We should veer away from the sin that makes us believe we are more important than the one down the street.

But, it is also a film that shines the light on how dangerously frail we can be. That without love – genuine, merciful love – we can break bad. We can devolve into chaos and evil. That sin does reside in us.

As a Christian who views the world the lens of a Lutheran, I know and believe that we are – as Martin Luther called it – simul justus et peccator. At the same time justified and a sinner.

Arthur cares for his mother (again, to a point). He even wants to see children smile and happy – and wants to be the cause of that joy. He wants to bring laughter into others lives. But, that sin lurks and simmers at the top for him, and he is unable to withstand it’s sickening call and constant leaning on the doorbell of his life. He opens the door and lets that sin and terror consume him.

Thomas Wayne (the personification of the elite) wants to see others have a better life. He doesn’t want there to be chaos, evil, and hurt in the world. But, the sin of not listening or caring about those whom he talks about and down to keeps him/society from actually making substantial and beneficial changes to bring about the future and life that would be good for all.

Joker is an interesting film. It is one that sits with you.

 

If anything, care for those around you. Notice the people beside you. Live into the grace and mercy that God has given the world. Know that you are already valued and loved by God through Jesus who is the Christ. Show genuine love, because the world really needs it.


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