If Avengers: Endgame was 2019’s first critic-proof film, then writer-director Todd Phillips’ Joker is, appropriately enough, its dark, twisted reflection. Ever since its August premiere at the Venice Film Festival – where it unexpectedly took home the fest’s grand prize, the Golden Lion – critical reaction to Joker has been generally positive, although the film’s few outright pans have been positively scathing. The feature’s Tomato-approved reception is only a fragment of its pop cultural footprint, however. For will or ill (mostly ill), Joker has dominated the year’s pop-cultural discourse from the moment its first trailer appeared. Disconcertingly, this tease suggested that Phillips’ standalone non-DCEU film was going to lionize a violent (white male) criminal who had been pushed to the breaking point by, like, Society, man. The Clown Prince of Crime has since infected seemingly every online platform and publication, spawning innumerable think pieces and Twitter feuds about whether Phillips’ film represents a gritty, cunning work of genre subversion or an ill-timed, disgusting act of faux-provocation. Joker has, in effect, become Schrödinger’s Film – especially for the millions of people who haven’t even seen it yet.
This critic has seen Joker and can attest that – as one might expect – the truth lies somewhere between such hyperbolic extremes. It is, to be sure, a film with much to admire, at least in terms of sheer craft. Joaquin Phoenix, as the hapless rent-a-clown and wannabe stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, unsurprisingly brings every gram of his considerable acting talent to bear on a character that has improbably achieved a Lear-sized reputation ever since Heath Ledger’s posthumous 2009 Oscar win. Philips and the rest of the film’s crew – most notably cinematographer Lawrence Sher, production designer Mark Friedberg, set decorator Kris Moran, and costumer designer Mark Bridges – create a Gotham City that’s fantastically grimy, cruel, and ugly as sin. This isn’t the Expressionist outlandishness of Tim Burton’s Batman(1989) or the slick action-movie “realism” of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, and 2012). Instead, Joker draws on the grubby “New York Shitty” cinematic canon of the late 1960s through mid-70s – with a particular debt owed to Death Wish (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Taxi Driver (1976).
That last film is perhaps Joker’s most obvious influence: Both are unreliable tales about a traumatized, mentally ill loner who is ostensibly provoked to violence by the societal breakdown they observe all around them. In fact, Phillips summons the spirit of Taxi Driver – and that of another NYC-set Scorsese film, The King of Comedy (1982) – with such giddy frequency that it begins to feel like slavish homage for the sake of homage. The presence of Travis Bickle / Rupert Pupkin himself, Robert De Niro, in the role of a late-night talk show host only serves to hammer the point home. What exactly that point might be is unclear, beyond establishing that the filmmakers have, in fact, seen Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.
Joker fares better when it ditches the winking film-bro references and simply evokes the feeling of a bygone New York – er, Gotham City – in all its rat-infested, garbage-piled, shoulder-to-shoulder glory. This it does spectacularly well, thanks to the aforementioned design team, who also seem to be drawing some inspiration from the distorted urban hellscapes depicted in 1990s thrillers like Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Flatliners (1990), Se7en (1995), and 8MM (1999). The film’s fatigued, tobacco-stained vision of Gotham would make for a fantastic setting in a future Batman: Arkham game. (Hint hint, Rocksteady Studios.)
While the technological and pop cultural signifiers might roughly suggest Bicentennial-era Gotham, there’s also a smudged ambiguity to the film’s setting. After all, Batman’s stomping ground has always represented an archetypal version of the capital-c City at its absolute worst, the nightmare town cousin to Metropolis’ gleaming beacon on a hill. For Arthur Fleck, Gotham isn’t just home: It’s a hateful, abusive parent who eventually nurtures his nature right over the proverbial cliff, sending him cackling into the abyss. However, this doesn’t make for a particularly compelling arc in practice, and the screenplay by Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter, The Finest Hours) neglects characterization in favor of hustling Arthur towards his predetermined destiny. In a sense, Joker plays like the Clown Prince’s own propaganda film, a flimsy, sloppy “You Made Me Do This” ex post facto justification for all the criminal havoc he wreaks on Gotham in the ensuing years.
Arthur (Phoenix) is already a pitiable figure when the viewer first meets him, and it slowly emerges that his life has always been a bit of a grotesque tragedy. Having spent an unspecified amount of time in a mental hospital, Arthur now twirls signs for going-out-of-business sales – or whatever freelance clowning gigs his boss (Hoyt Vaughn) will deign to toss his way. At night, he returns to his decrepit apartment to care for his housebound elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who is convinced that her once-upon-a-time employer, billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), will rescue them from their wretched circumstances any day now. Arthur has routine meetings with a social worker (Sharon Washington) who is full of pestering, repetitive questions, although she also provides access to the seven different medications he takes daily. Among his many issues is a trauma-induced neurological disorder that causes him burst into shrill, choking laughter in moments of high anxiety – an affliction that he explains to strangers with a laminated card proffered in between fits. (“I HAVE A CONDITION.”)
Living down the hall from Arthur is a bank worker and single mom, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who seems to respond warmly to his awkward hellos and goofy mugging. However, the glimmer of hopefulness that she represents seems to exist solely so that Arthur can be kicked around that much more viciously in the bleak world of Joker. His life begins to slide out of control after he’s jumped by a gaggle of kids – who steal and smash his sign from a sidewalk clowning job, and then proceed to kick the crap out of him, apparently for having the termity to be such an pathetic victim. After this incident, a fellow clown (Glenn Fleshler) loans him a revolver for personal protection, but when Arthur brings the gun to a gig at a children’s hospital, he’s summarily fired. (And with good cause!) It’s an unfortunate development for Arthur’s nascent stand-up comedy career, of which there seems to be precious little beyond some jokes scribbled in a diary that could have been filched from the shelves of Se7en’s John Doe. Notwithstanding his shortage of material and stage experience, Arthur dreams of appearing on a Gotham-based late-night show hosted by comedy veteran Murray Franklin (De Niro). One of Arthur’s showbiz fantasy sequences has such a strong resemblance to those in The King of Comedy – where a young De Niro played the part of the delusional, starstruck stalker to Jerry Lewis’ Merv Griffin / Johnny Carson analogue – it’s almost discombobulating.
Things reach a crisis point for Arthur when he’s mocked and beaten (again!) late one night on the subway, this time by a trio of alpha-male Wall Street jackwagons (er, Wayne Enterprises jackwagons). This is the straw that breaks the clown’s back, it turns out, as Arthur shoots two of his assailants dead on the spot with his new revolver, and then chases the other one down through the deserted subway station to finish him off. Phillips and Silver present this as Arthur’s point of no return: He is plainly energized both by the thrill of violently pushing back against the world and by the “killer clown” stories that monopolize headlines in the ensuing days. The Gotham City media spins this triple homicide into an act of Eat-the-Rich vigilantism, casting the unidentified shooter as a proxy for aggrieved citizens fed up with vaguely-defined “elites” whose unofficial standard-bearer is Thomas Wayne. Even after Arthur has had his first taste of ultra-violence, Joker piles yet more indignities on him, starting with a catastrophically awkward stand-up set, footage of which ends up the subject of mockery on Franklin’s show. There’s also the matter of Arthur’s mysterious paternity, which first zigs in a predictable if preposterous direction before zagging in a sadder, more banal direction, setting up the character’s final descent into supervillain infamy.
Phoenix brings all the disturbing intensity that one would expect to such performance: He isn’t afraid to make Arthur vaguely off-putting and repellent from the very first scene, without ever losing sight of the fact that there is a bruised child somewhere underneath the greasepaint. He renders this version of the Joker (proto-Joker?) as a clammy, shuffling assemblage of fearfulness, agitation, weariness, and space-cadet weirdness. (Arthur has a habit of breaking into a languid, ecstatic dance – his gaunt torso and limbs arching grotesquely – during moments of exultation.) If nothing else, the actor does a commendable job of suggesting a man in deep, seemingly insoluble psychological pain. It’s a ferocious performance, admittedly, but also Exhibit A for why less is sometimes more: Phoenix was able to evoke richer pathos from a thousand-yard stare in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017) than from all the twitching, slouching, and contorting in Joker. (The former film, as it happens, is a masterful, aesthetically daring remix of Taxi Driver that actually has something to say about the human condition. Imagine that.)
Much as Burton’s film did, Phillips’s feature connects the Joker to Batman’s origins, albeit obliquely; and, yes, that means that the viewer is once again obliged to watch as the parents of young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) are gunned down on screen, seemingly for the zillionth time. The questionable premise of Joker – that the Caped Crusader’s archenemy actually predated him by a couple of decades – was always in for an uphill battle, story-wise. The Joker works most effectively as a response to Batman, an equal and opposite reaction birthed into the world by the extremes of Bruce’s vigilantism. This is what Jim Gordon memorably referred to as the “escalation” problem in the epilogue to Batman Begins, and it’s perhaps never been expressed better than in Jeph Loeb and Time Hale’s superb 1996-97 comic series Batman: The Long Halloween. There’s nothing inherently heretical about breaking with this conceit, but it does mean that such an outside-the-box conception of the Joker needs to do something meaty and provocative with the character. Moreover, there’s nothing intrinsically ill-advised about centering a film on a protagonist who is utterly loathsome – see: Dan Gilroy’s superb Nightcrawler (2014) – if they are portrayed in a manner that makes them comprehensible, distinctive, and thought-provoking.
Joker falls woefully short on this count. The plot of the film is straightforward, notwithstanding all the subplots Phillips and Silver seem determined to throw into the mix. Arthur, who is already suffering from multiple mistreated or under-treated mental illnesses, is repeatedly beaten down by the general shittiness of life. Eventually he has a complete breakdown, embraces violence, and basks in the adulation of the unwashed masses who see him as a kind of anarchic anti-messiah in a V for Vendetta-style uprising. That’s pretty much all Phillips’ film has to offer in the way of substance. In truth, a gleeful cinematic toast to cruelty and nihilism would have been preferable to the confused, ungainly, pseudo-timely parable that Joker seems to be aiming for. One could easily envision Rob Zombie delivering the former, and in a sense, he already has: It’s called The Devil’s Rejects (2005).
If Joker has an ethos, it’s a very muddled one where low-key racism, sexism, ableism, and the self-pitying rage of the Fed-Up White Guy are rather bafflingly mixed in with more leftish sentiments: anti-bullying; anti-harassment; anti-austerity; democratic anarchism; and a generalized sort of guillotine-happy class warfare. (In this, Joker’s political incoherence bears some resemblance to that of The Dark Knight Rises.) Here, Thomas Wayne is portrayed as an irritable, supercilious prick who insults Gotham’s citizenry on live television, which would make for a stunning subversion of the Batman mythos if it were employed for any purpose beyond creating a bit of feeble empathy for the Joker and the clown-masked rabble he rouses into rioting over… something.
Indeed, if Phillips’ film were the smug, toxic, 4chan-pandering provocation that its detractors fear, at least it would be intelligible – poisonous, but intelligible. Instead, Phillips has delivered a Joker where the titular protagonist earnestly bemoans the lack of civility in modern society, and then promptly blows a man’s brains out with a handgun. (What a scamp!) This version of the character exhibits only sporadic flashes of the gallows humor and impish irreverence that typically define the Joker. Phoenix’s incarnation is so preoccupied with “making his mark” on the world in some vague but ominous way, he can’t be bothered to crack wise. Given that this is the one comic book character who absolutely should be at least sort of funny, Joker is a surprisingly sour, laugh-free film. Despite the lead actor’s best efforts, the viewer is frustratingly stranded outside the Joker’s headspace, where they can only sniff in mingled disgust and pity at his violent delusions – which seems like a major flaw for a film that aims to humanize the Clown Prince of Crime into a tragic figure. The film might have a 1970s look and feel, but its protagonist seems like an early 1980s refugee – Mark David Chapman or John Hinckley Jr., to be precise. Yet there’s also something tiresomely, depressingly 21st-century about this Joker, who doesn’t want to watch the world burn so much as vainly gloat at being the one who struck the match. You know, for the lulz.