Joaquin Phoenix, Todd Phillips respond to critics as Aurora shooting victims express concern over 'Joker'

The release of Todd Phillips's highly anticipated film Joker is less than two weeks away, but there's one theater that won't be showing the director's dark take on the Batman villain: the Century Aurora and XD.

The theater in Aurora, Colo. is the remodeled venue where a mass shooting occurred during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July 2012. Gunman James Holmes, who is serving life in prison, opened fire on moviegoers murdering 12 people and injuring 70 others. A theater employee tells The Hollywood Reporter no advance ticket purchases are available because the multiplex won't be showing the film.

Family members of those killed seven years ago have signed a letter to Warner Bros. expressing concern and asking the studio to donate to gun-victim charities.

"We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe," reads a portion of the letter, which was shared with THR. The letter is addressed to new Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff and does not ask the studio to halt release or promotion of the film. Instead, it asks that the studio "end political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform" and "use your political clout and leverage in Congress to actively lobby for gun reform. Keeping everyone safe should be a top corporate priority for Warner Brothers."

The letter was signed by five family members of victims and sent Tuesday morning. Warner Bros. issued the following response hours later:

"Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero."

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Phillips's R-rated Joker took home the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, but reviews have remarked on the film's gritty violence. "Joker wants to be a movie about the emptiness of our culture. Instead, it’s a prime — and dangerous — example of it," according to Time, while Vanity Fair declared, "Todd Phillips’s bracing, disturbing film has an undeniable impact — for good and bad."

Someone who has seen the film confirms to Yahoo Entertainment the violence is more "realistic and not over-the-top blood and gore." While there are a couple of scenes of overt gun-violence, "the bulk of the movie isn’t necessarily violent, but very grim and in terms of the content and character backstory." That's why star Joaquin Phoenix is already generating major awards buzz.

Phoenix, who walked out of an interview recently when asked if the movie might inspire acts of violence, has responded to critics calling the film dangerous.

"Well, I think that, for most of us, you're able to tell the difference between right and wrong," the actor told IGN. "So I don't think it's the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that's obvious."

Phillips added, "The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message... It's so, to me, bizarre when people say, ‘Oh, well I could handle it. But imagine if you can't.’ It's making judgments for other people and I don't even want to bring up the movies in the past that they've said this about because it's shocking and embarrassing when you go, oh my God, Do the Right Thing, they said that about [that movie, too]."

James Holmes, who had bright dyed hair when he carried out the 2012 massacre, was compared to the title villain after his arrest. False reports at the time claimed he called himself "the Joker," but Aurora’s chief of police declared "there is no evidence" Holmes ever said that. In an interview with THR, Sandy Phillips (no relation to Todd Phillips), whose 24-year-old daughter was murdered in the theater, said the movie is "like a slap in the face."

"I don’t need to see a picture of [Holmes]; I just need to see a Joker promo and I see a picture of the killer," she declared, adding, "My worry is that one person who may be out there — and who knows if it is just one — who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie. And that terrifies me."

Not all family members of the victims are triggered by the upcoming movie. Tom Sullivan, whose 27-year-old son Alex was murdered at the theater, tells THR he doesn't believe Joker will "jumpstart somebody" to commit acts of violence, but would support Warner Bros. adding "a blurb at the end or beginning of the movie about directing people to organizations for mental health."

Warner Bros. isn’t the only studio to face criticism over its promotion of violent films in the wake of mass shootings. In August, Universal canceled the release of controversial political thriller, The Hunt.

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