There’s never been a movie like Joker. That’s not because it’s a dark, psychologically complex study of a man driven to the brink of madness and beyond, or because it’s a comic-book blockbuster in which the distinction between heroes and villains is so fine as to be almost imperceptible—those kinds of stories, although they still retain a veneer of superficial edginess, are so common now as to be positively banal. What makes Joker unique is that it’s all of those things and also a movie that arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival having just won Venice’s Golden Lion, the top prize at one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, and will pass through another major fall festival, in New York, before arriving in theaters Oct. 4. It’s rare enough for all three festivals, which routinely compete for premieres, to share a film. For that film to be one about a Batman villain is as crazy as any of the Joker’s schemes.
Joker also happened to be honored alongside An Officer and a Spy, the newest movie by Roman Polanski, whose history of sexual assault allegations has returned to the fore in the #MeToo era, and both movies have been met by similar questions about their fitness for the present political moment. Is this really the time for a story about a frustrated, alienated white man who turns to violence, especially one centered around a character who was once dubiously blamed for a real-life mass murder?
For the first half of Joker, the only explanation for its victory in Venice seemed to be that jury president Lucrecia Martel, et al., had been huffing laughing gas. Directed and co-written by The Hangover trilogy’s Todd Phillips, the movie presents Arthur Fleck (an emaciated Joaquin Phoenix) as an isolated loner in an uncaring world, a victim of societal neglect whose route towards supervillainy is all but foreordained. In other words, the movie plays right into advance fears that it could act as a kind of incel manifesto, offering not just comfort or understanding to disaffected young men angry at the world but a playbook for striking back at it.
As nearly every critic has noted, the movie is replete with homages to the movies of Martin Scorsese, especially Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, with Robert De Niro playing a riff on the late-night host Jerry Lewis played in the latter, and it takes place against the same backdrop. Although Gotham City remains as fictitious as ever, movie posters and marquees firmly place the year as 1981, and the movie echoes that period’s depiction of cities as cesspools of depravity and filth. The opening scene, in which Arthur, who’s peacefully but unhappily twirling a sign for a discount store, is taunted and then beaten by a gang of Latino-coded thugs, draws directly on the narrative of white persecution so effectively weaponized by Donald Trump. (The only difference is that no one says the word “Chicago.”) Phoenix, who reportedly lost over 50 pounds for the role, makes Arthur so fragile he’s painful to look at; when Phillips shoots his bare back, it’s as if his bones are ready to tear through his skin. But stories like Arthur’s have been told so many times that every chord has been sounded, and no matter how emphatic Phoenix’s performance, it feels like a risk to feel too much for him, not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theater using his resentments to justify their own.
Even within the world of Joker, Arthur is as much a symbol as a man. When he, still wearing the clown costume from his day job, is attacked by a group of drunken stockbrokers who’ve taken him for an easy target, he fights back Bernie Goetz style and becomes an anonymous folk hero, spawning a surge of resentment against privileged elites. (It doesn’t hurt that his assailants work for Thomas Wayne, a wealthy right-wing businessman who’s running for mayor on a law-and-order platform.) Philips told reporters in Venice that Joker is “certainly not a political film,” and when Arthur is asked whether he supports the movement that has sprung up in his wake, he responds, “I don’t believe in all of that. I don’t believe in anything.” But it’s impossible for either of those statements to be true. Arthur believes, at the very least, in his right to be listened to, whether it’s by his court-appointed therapists, his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), or his neighbor, a single mother played by Zazie Beetz. And Joker is political, if not partisan or even ideologically coherent, channeling cultural currents into the outline of a familiar but malleable comic-book figure.
Joker isn’t the character’s first origin story. It’s barely been two years since Suicide Squad gave us a glimpse of Jared Leto’s prison-tatted gangster tumbling into the customary vat of chemicals. But the Joker isn’t meant to be explained. He’s literally iconic, a two-dimensional figure who’s more powerful, and more frightening, for his inherent indecipherability. Phoenix told the Associated Press that he deliberately incorporated elements of different psychological disorders so that the character would be impossible to define, but it’s clear, at least, that he’s mentally ill, and that his illness is worsened by a lack of community or a social safety net. He’s not an inevitable product of a sick society, but a healthier one could have stopped him from becoming what he became.
Joker’s apparent aim is to offer Arthur empathy without sympathy, to understand him without excusing him. Phoenix’s performance is magnetic, but magnets can repel as well as attract, or sometimes just hold us at a distance. You can watch Joker and practically see some of its images—like the sight of Arthur, in his full Joker regalia, descending a staircase and high-kicking like a demented Fred Astaire—being transformed into alt-right memes, and though it’s not as if the alt-right lacked for raw material beforehand, it’s hard not to feel as if the least a major movie studio, a gifted actor, and an intelligent director could do is make it a little harder for them.
Despite the inevitable hints about the emergence of the Joker’s future adversary (you know, the one with the ears), the movie is presented as a stand-alone piece. But its third act owes much to The Dark Knight Rises’ tale of a city on the brink of anarchy, even as this supervillain’s role in pushing it over the edge is mostly accidental. Arthur, who’s been so starved of attention for so long, becomes an inadvertent celebrity, going the early-’80s equivalent of viral, and he likes how it feels. He doesn’t make the mob so much as the mob makes him, but when he’s elevated above them, he has nowhere to lead them. He’s just in it for the LOLs.
Like the Purge movies (at least, before they got wise to their own subtext), Joker’s politics are more opportunistic than polemical. The protests, where people (nearly all of them white men) don clown masks and wield placards with slogans like “Kill the Rich,” are staged as a deliberate mixture of alt-right rally and antifa protest. There’s a slippery both sides–ism to it, a sense that provocation can function as its own end. (It didn’t seem accidental that Phillips used the film’s intro to remind the audience he once made a documentary about punk rocker GG Allin, whose act regularly included him taking a shit onstage.) The movie is throwing matches at a pile of gasoline-soaked rags and seeing how close they can get without actually setting them alight.
But as Gotham starts to smolder, Joker becomes a sobering, unsettling account of what happens when those antisocial impulses, no matter their origins, are left unchecked—either through ignorance or indifference. Joker’s true sympathies lie not with Arthur but with the anger he comes to represent, the sense of disenfranchisement and betrayal, of feeling like the world is ruled by indifference and the best thing to fight it with is hate. That’s real, and nowadays it sometimes feels so present that it almost takes on human form. The Joker just gives it a name.