Joker and the Cost of Nihilism

The reports were correct. For a comic book movie, Joker is unusually violent. Very violent, in fact. Yes I’ve seen it. No, I didn’t walk out. But I had to shut my eyes a few times.

(No spoilers below)

Director Todd Phillips portrays violence in the actions of his characters, but also in their uncaring, selfish and brutal attitudes towards each other. Violence is nothing new in cinema. But violence with no mitigating circumstances? Or apparent consequences? Personal pain turning into raw and unchained nihilism? It’s a tough watch. I’m grateful that Phillips clearly telegraphs the oncoming violence in his movie so that the audience has time to look away if they want to.

There is concern about the effect this film will have on culture. The tragic Aurora cinema shooting of 2012 was mistakenly linked to perceived glorification of violence in the earlier Dark Knight movies.[1] Well, Joker is a well-made and gritty homage to the Scorsese and Friedkin pictures of the 1970s. It feels like The French Connection in places. The cult status of the Joker character has caused people to worry that Aurora could happen again, a “wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up … [about] the influence these movies have on the national mood.”[2] Could the new Joker movie inspire copycat behaviour in certain types of people in its audience?

Well – I can’t speak for anyone else. I didn’t think Joker glorified or promoted acts of violence (physical + non-physical), even though certain scenes in the movie graphically show it. Rather – I think the filmmaker assumes you bring your moral sensibilities to the movie, and he spends a couple of hours facing you with a growing “sense of rage [that] pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience.”[3] Yet it left me with a sense of utter tragedy and loss. This is the result of someone choosing to empower themselves through acts of violence. Joaquin Phoenix has said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”[4] I’m no filmmaker, but I’m an inherently moral human being. And – I think Phoenix is right about what he says.

Here’s another way to put it. The movie WORKS because we are essentially moral creatures. If we weren’t, then nihilism would be the norm. What is nihilism? It’s an idea that says that nothing is real or matters, particularly religious and moral principles.[5] Life is meaningless. So, who cares if I eliminate people that get in my way? Those acts are of no ultimate importance. Under nihilism. But this is simply wrong. Murder does matter, whatever the reason. It is because we are moral beings, that acts of unbridled violence are deeply unsettling to us. And – rightly so. Nihilism is a broken and dangerous idea.

Ideas have a big impact on people. So does nihilism. One consistent and possible outcome of nihilism is portrayed in Joker. And look at the results:

  • mental breakdown.
  • loss of relationships.
  • casual destruction of the family unit.
  • loss of life.
  • misery.
  • terror.
  • social unrest.

Will Joker impact society? No doubt. But I think it would have done its job well if it underlines the cost of any nihilist tendencies within us. Look at it. They are just not worth this cost!

There is a better way to live. One that won’t leave you always running from a caped vigilante…

[1] Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie, The Atlantic, accessed 6th October 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nihilism, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 6th October, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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