One of the biggest film industry shocks of 2019 was “Joker” winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The prestigious victory announced the comic book drama as a major awards contender, and “Joker” would go on to earn a leading 11 nominations at the Academy Awards, winning the Best Actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix. A member of the jury that gave “Joker” the top Venice prize was Mary Harron, best known as the director of “American Psycho.” Harron recently spoke to Vulture about the 20th anniversary of her serial killer drama and touched upon the reasons her jury decided to award “Joker” with the Golden Lion.
“Apart from that it was a brilliant piece of filmmaking, I thought it was a great portrait of madness,” Harron said. “It had a class theme you very rarely find in American films.”
“Joker” went on to become the most controversial studio film in years. Ahead of the movie’s October theatrical release, some critics believed the film would prove dangerous and even encourage viewers to commit violent acts. The controversy didn’t stop “Joker” from becoming a box office phenomenon with over $1 billion worldwide. Harron says the reaction to “Joker” and the claims that it romanticized violence were “ludicrous.” Harron received similar blowback for “American Psycho” in 2000.
“While ‘Joker’s’ critics claimed it gave a sympathetic origin story to a toxic man, ‘American Psycho’ was criticized specifically for its violence against women. Notable feminists including Kate Millett and the National Organization for Women protested the story when it was released as a book…These attacks always focus on some kind of art movie. They never focus on the extreme violence in mainstream entertainment. I love ‘John Wick,’ but it’s far more violent and has far more mayhem than ‘Joker’ or ‘American Psycho.’ Actually, both of them have a small amount of violence. It’s just that that violence is disturbing.”
“Joker” director Todd Phillips expressed a similar opinion in the midst of “Joker” backlash last fall, pointing to action films like “John Wick” in which the main character mercilessly kills dozens of people. Harron said “Joker” and “American Psycho” were singled out because the minimal violence on display in each film “doesn’t slide down as easily” as the mass scale violence moviegoers find in countless PG-13 movies.
“Marvel, you can blow up most of Manhattan and people love that,” Harron said. “People are very uncomfortable with moral ambiguity. If that same violence had been perpetrated by a person [like John Wick] who was seeking noble revenge, they might feel differently. But when it’s someone who is like the Joker, who is deeply mentally disturbed, you’re put in an uncomfortable position. Even though I think the movie is pretty clear — this guy is psycho — you’ve followed him through his vulnerability and his being humiliated and neglected and used by the world and the people around him. And there’s an element where you’re identifying with him.”
Harron continued, “The same conversation happens over and over every so often with a film that is upsetting or disturbing, which is a part of what movies are and do. Then everything settles down. It’s crazy to me that everyone talks about ‘American Psycho’ in such reverent terms.”
Head over to Vulture’s website to read Harron’s interview in its entirety.