Editor’s Note: David Edelstein wrote his initial assessment of Joker at the Toronto Film Festival. This is his full review.
Groundbreaking works are often dangerous, flouting aesthetic and moral norms, forcing you to see the world from angles you’d rather not, through the eyes of people you’d flee. But not all dangerous works are groundbreaking. Not even most of them. Not even many. More often, they’re just sleazy and opportunistic, shocking only in the degree of their violence and not because they show the world from a radical perspective. Consider Joker, the R-rated DC Comics installment that prompted an eight-minute standing ovation after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Oh, those Italians — they do love operatic celebrations of psychosis. I can see why people are gobsmacked. The movie has a distinctively scuzzy look — harlequin hues plus urban rot — along with a tour-de-force performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the pitifully undefended party clown who will one day be Batman’s most feared nemesis. Its director, Todd Phillips, has playfully referred to Joker as “bonkers,” but he’s giving himself too much credit. Righteous vigilantism has long been the dominant mode in modern crime sagas; the main difference here is that the vigilante wears makeup and has a grating laugh. Joker is an attempt to elevate nerdy revenge to the plane of myth, which is scary on a lot of different levels.
Although this is an “origin” story, Phoenix’s Arthur is a volatile party clown well before he adopts that fabled moniker. But oh, does he mean well. The problem is that from birth, the fates have cast him as a victim, more sinned against than sinning. What a litany of injuries: In the first scene, a group of teens steals the sign he carries for an everything must go sale and bashes it across his face when he gives chase, after which his boss accuses him of stealing the sign and deducts the cost from Arthur’s wages. An attractive single mother (Zazie Beetz) in his run-down apartment building can barely keep from grimacing in the face of his greasy leering. Social services are being cut, presumably to put money in the pockets of Gotham City’s wealthy — among them Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce — which means Arthur no longer has easy access to therapy or 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 Wall Street guys who happen to work for Wayne. Then a popular talk-show host (Robert De Niro) cruelly ridicules his attempt to be a stand-up comic at an open-mic event. The underclass, the overlords, the bosses, the government, celebrities, his fellow plebes, his overbearing, sickly mother (Frances Conroy) — everyone knocks him down and down again. Is it any wonder that this bereft, belittled man sees only two possibilities: suicide or supervillainy? In the end, you have to admire Arthur for his self-actualization. It sure beats impotence — or nonexistence, which is the ultimate impotence.
Actually, you don’t just admire Joker. The parade of insults is so repetitive and finally so tedious that you root for his alter ego’s emergence. Kill someone, Arthur! Anyone! Liberate our eyes from those underlit interiors with their pools of red, green, and yellow and from those rusted-out, graffiti-ridden subways and back alleys that conjure up the hell that was New York City in the 1980s. The movie wears its influences like a squirting flower: Arthur is a melding of two Martin Scorsese protagonists, The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (hence the gimmick casting of De Niro), and a cousin to Charles Bronson’s Death Wish vigilante. At no point are we troubled by the people Arthur kills — they’re “free-range rude,” in the words of Hannibal Lecter, another psycho transformed by his author into an existential hero after an origin story in which some Nazis forced him to eat his little sister.
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 registering 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 De Niro’s talk show with his clown face and orange 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 movie: It’s one note played louder and louder. 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. 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 evoking The French Connection — when the greasepainted 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 horrors we call urban life.
As Time’s Stephanie Zacharek put it, the film is less an exploration of a modern pathology than a symptom of it. It’s an anthem for incels. It brings to mind Stephen Metcalf’s incisive 2012 essay in Slate after a disturbed man opened fire in a theater showing The Dark Knight Rises. Metcalf didn’t blame the movie, exactly. But he did trace a connection between civil massacres and characters like Joker. The young men who had committed such acts believed “they had been grossly undervalued by the world—so much so, their lives had become one long psychic injury.” Metcalf suggests these men are drawn to supervillains, with their “charismatic malevolence” and ability to put modern technology to “creatively annihilative” uses, because it allows them to aggrandize themselves as Mephistophelean. Building on Hannah Arendt’s famous assessment of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who represented “the banality of evil,” Metcalf argued the best way to discourage incidents like the one in that theater (which have become way more frequent in the meantime) 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. Also it’s profoundly boring — a one-joke movie.
*A version of this article appears in the September 30, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!