After the eight-minute standing ovation for Joker at the Venice Film Festival, the 20 seconds or so of enthusiastic (seated) applause at the Toronto International Film Festival came as a relief, at least to one critic. Perhaps Canadians are temperamentally less inclined to shout “Bravissimo!” for operatic celebrations of psychosis. More likely, they chose to restore some balance by recognizing an accomplished movie with a tour-de-force leading performance, but also one that’s monotonous, unpleasant, and morally blech. Its director, Todd Phillips, playfully referred to it as “bonkers” in his Toronto introduction, but he’s giving himself too much credit. The thinking behind the film is very conventional. As Hannah Arendt saw banality in the supposed evil of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, I see in Joker an attempt to elevate nerdy revenge to the plane of myth. That’s scary on a lot of different levels.
Although this is an “origin” story, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a volatile party clown well before he adopts that fabled moniker. But there’s a key difference: He’s a victim, more sinned against than sinning. Oh, what a litany of injuries: In the first scene, a group of teens steals the sign he carries for a Going Out of Business sale and bash it over his head when he gives chase, after which — insult to injury — his boss accuses him of stealing the sign and deducts the cost from Arthur’s wages. A colleague gives him a gun and then — when the weapon clatters to the floor during a party for sick kids — denies it. An attractive single mother (Zazie Beetz) in his rundown apartment building can barely keep from grimacing in the face of his greasy leering. Social services are being cut to put money in the pockets of Gotham City’s wealthy — among them Thomas Wayne, soon-to-be-murdered father of Bruce, who’ll go bats — which means Arthur no longer has easy access to his meds, which means he could provoke still more scummy thugs with his Tourette’s-like tendency to break into laughter in moments of stress. Sure enough, he’s attacked on the subway, this time by drunken yuppies who happen to work for Wayne. A popular talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), cruelly ridicules his attempt to be a stand-up comic at an open-mic event. Add to this an overbearing, sickly mother (Frances Conroy) and a history of childhood abuse — is it any wonder the outcast/victim sees only two possibilities: suicide or assuming the guise of a supervillain? You have to admire Arthur for his self-actualization. It sure beats impotence — or nonexistence, which is the ultimate impotence.
We want Joker. We need Joker, if only to end the slow, masochistic trajectory. Kill someone, anyone! Rescue our eyes from those underlit interiors with their pools of red and green and yellow light — harlequin colors with a brackish tinge — and rusted-out, graffiti-ridden ’70s New York fire escapes and back alleys. We get the allusions — that Arthur is a melding of two Martin Scorsese protagonists, Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle (hence the gimmick casting of De Niro, who doesn’t seem like a natural talk-show host). If Arthur could be Pupkin’s sibling, he’s cousin at least to Charles Bronson’s urban vigilante in Death Wish. At no point are we troubled by the people he kills — they’re “free-range rude” in the words of Hannibal Lecter, another psycho transformed into an existential hero after an origin story in which some mean Russians forced him to eat his little sister. Watching Arthur trudge up and down a long outdoor staircase evokes The Exorcist and its demon, Pazuzu, sometimes referred to as a clown called Captain Howdy. But here there’s no exorcist in sight. We think, “Come into Arthur, Captain Howdy!”
Joker is the ultimate Joaquin Phoenix role, which is not necessarily a compliment, though not a disparagement either. He’s the best unhinged movie actor in the world. Phoenix never seems happier — or at least more at home — than when miserably lost in a character’s mind, his features translating every short-circuiting synapse. There’s music in his head, now flowing, now spasmodic, and when Arthur throws up his arms and twirls or does a little soft shoe, it’s as if he’s freeing himself from the oppression of acting sane. Take that, normalcy! When he finally makes an appearance on Franklin’s talk show with his clown face and rust-colored suit, he refuses to connect with the host’s rhythms, and you flash on Phoenix’s nutso act with David Letterman, when he stopped the world and made it squirm. The downside to the performance is the downside to the whole movie: It’s essentially repetitive. It goes nowhere you can’t predict. And the other actors offer no relief. De Niro is ill-suited to a part that calls for showbiz savvy, Beetz functions as a male projection, and Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne would lose a charisma contest to Mike Bloomberg. Frances Conroy has a lyrical moment or two as Arthur’s mom, but she’s so obviously off her rocker that she functions as yet another antagonist to Arthur. The movie comes to life visually — this time imitating The French Connection — when the grease-painted Arthur flees detectives by losing himself on a subway packed with protesters dressed as clowns, but I began to dread the inevitable outcome: that Arthur will be recognized as a Clown God in the circus of horror we call urban life.
Joker has been called an anthem for incels, which isn’t wrong. I agree with Time’s Stephanie Zacharek that’s it’s less an exploration of a modern pathology than a symptom of it. The movie brings to mind Stephen Metcalfe’s incisive 2012 essay in Slate, after a disturbed man opened fire in a theater showing The Dark Knight Rises. Metcalfe didn’t blame the movie, exactly, but he did trace a connection between civil massacres and portraits of supervillains. The young men who committed these acts believed “they had been grossly undervalued by the world — so much so, their lives had become one long psychic injury.” In response, they cultivated a “charismatic malevolence” and put modern technology to “creatively annihilative” uses. They aggrandized themselves as Mephistophelean. Building on Arendt’s work, Metcalfe said the best way to discourage incidents like the one in that theater (way more frequent since he wrote that piece) is to “divest evil of its grandiosity or mythic resonance by completely banalizing it.” In other words, make them look like the loser schmucks they are.
Although Phillips and the screenwriters sought to make Joker more realistic than its DC Comics predecessors, it exalts its protagonist and gives him the origin story of his dreams, in which killing is a just — and artful — response to a malevolently indifferent society. Arthur/Joker might be repulsive, but in a topsy-turvy universe, repulsive is attractive. I’m not arguing that Joker will inspire killings (it might, but so might a lot of other things) — only that it panders to selfish, small-minded feelings of resentment and as such is profoundly boring. It’s a one-joke movie.