In Defense of 'Joker' and Its Repulsive Violence

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By Stephen Galloway

Todd Phillips' bravura work dares to confront the things we're most afraid to see.

In 1971, Warner Bros. released one of the most controversial films in movie history. 

A Clockwork Orange told the dystopian story of a brutal young man, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), who leads a band of thugs (“droogs”) on a terrifying crime spree, beating, raping and committing acts of what’s called “ultra-violence” along the way. At one point, he bludgeons a woman with a phallic sculpture; at another, he and his droogs bash a man and rape his wife while chanting "Singin’ in the Rain."

Stanley Kubrick’s film drew an immediate outcry despite its box office success. Pauline Kael called it “pornographic” because, she argued, it dehumanized the suffering of Alex’s victims while eliciting sympathy for Alex’s own. The Catholic Church forbade its members from seeing the picture, which was given an X rating in North America.

But what made Clockwork Orange especially troubling was the spate of copycat incidents that followed, or at least incidents that looked as if they’d been shaped by the film.

In early 1972, a British prosecutor slammed it for influencing a 14-year-old accused of manslaughter. Later, a 16-year-old, pleading guilty to killing an old man, said he’d heard about the movie, while his attorney assured the court that “the link between this crime and sensational literature, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is established beyond reasonable doubt.”

There, of course, is the rub. No study has ever established that link beyond a reasonable doubt; nor is there any evidence to show that a criminal — even one who imitates something on film — wouldn’t have done something equally abominable at another time.

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