“I hope my death will make more cents than my life,” reads one of the plaintive misspelled scrawlings in the diary of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the mentally ill clown on his way to becoming Batman’s green-haired nemesis, in Todd Phillips’ superhero-adjacent psychological thriller Joker. I won’t reveal whether Arthur survives the movie—though Joker is that perennial comic-book standby, an origin story, the filmmakers have emphasized since the beginning that the movie is a “standalone.” But this grindingly bleak account of his pre-supervillain life looks set to make plenty of cents on opening weekend.
Joker’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival at the end of August was greeted (mostly) with critical rapture, and the film was awarded the top prize, the Golden Lion. Only a few days later, after the movie’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the first wave of backlash began to crest. Some critics thought Phillips’ portrait of the artist as a young murderer could be seen as an apologia for the violent ideology of the incel movement, and some family members of victims of the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which took place at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, expressed similar concerns. Meanwhile, plenty of other reviewers suggested that, incitement to mass revolt aside, the movie was bombastic, unoriginal, and just plain bad.
In general, I try to steer clear of advance buzz to avoid exactly this kind of pre-release staking out of sides. But especially after Phillips—a director most associated with hit male-bonding comedies, from Old School and Road Trip to the Hangover series—went viral with an interview bemoaning the impossibility of making funny movies in these regrettably “woke” times, it was hard not to walk into Joker knowing something about it. I’d say I approached the film with equal parts squeamishness about the impending gore and curiosity about how Joaquin Phoenix, whom I’ve gradually come to regard as one of the best American actors working, would approach the role of an evil comic-book clown.
The grimy and relentlessly downbeat fable that finally unfolded on screen seemed too slight, aesthetically and morally, to bear the weight of all those months of debate. Joker is a bad movie, yes: It’s predictable, clichéd, deeply derivative of other, better movies, and overwritten to the point of self-parody. (If a feature-length sendup of Joker was made, it’s hard to imagine in what details it would differ from Joker itself.) The experience of sitting through it is highly unpleasant, but that unpleasantness has less to do with graphic violence—there are only one or two scenes that go hard, gore-wise—than with claustrophobia and boredom.
Scene after scene makes the same point: that Phoenix’s Arthur, a clown and aspiring stand-up comedian living in semi-poverty with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), is a really freaky dude. He’s undernourished to the point of emaciation; Phoenix, who not long ago bulked up for his role as the hitman in You Were Never Really Here, has lost so much weight since then that he looks alarmingly gaunt. As a laminated card Arthur carries around with him explains, he has a condition that causes him to periodically break into painful-sounding bursts of compulsive laughter, often with the choking sound of someone sobbing. Gradually, as he discovers that killing is the only thing that gives him a sense of purpose, meaning, and beauty—a state of mind Phoenix conveys by following or preceding each murder with a sinuous, balletic dance—the pity that the first third of the movie strained so hard to evoke from the viewer turns to disgust. The rest of the movie wallows in that disgust, seeming to relish the bathos of its own protagonist’s abjection and isolation.
When we first meet him, Arthur Fleck is working at Ha-Ha’s, a kind of rent-a-clown agency in the gritty, run-down heart of Gotham City. That storied town looks a lot like New York in the late 1970s or early 1980s, right down to the garbage piled high in the streets and a porn theater–filled entertainment district that recalls the old Times Square. It’s there that Arthur endures a series of humiliations at the hands of what he will later rail against, vaguely, as “society.” A band of teenage thugs beat him up as he’s plying his trade on the street; his unfeeling boss (Josh Pais) then forces Arthur to pay out of his own pocket for the sign the marauding teens stole. Passengers on a city bus recoil from him when he’s seized by one of his pathological fits of mirthless laughter. Though he fantasizes about making a romantic connection with a young single mother (Zazie Beetz) who lives on his floor, Arthur has no real social contacts apart from his frail and increasingly demented mother. And his loneliness increases after city budget cuts eliminate his weekly meeting with a counselor and cut off his access to psychiatric meds. He’s an insane clown without a posse.
In what might be generously called an homage to Martin Scorsese (who was, at one point, one of the film’s producers), Arthur is also unhealthily obsessed with a nighttime talk-show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). In Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, De Niro was the would-be stand-up fixated on a TV personality played by Jerry Lewis. As in that film, when the paths of the famous and the soon-to-be-infamous finally cross, very bad things ensue.
Arthur’s first foray into homicide happens to involve a trio of finance bros who mock him on the graffiti-streaked subway. There’s no real ideological motive behind the killing—to Arthur, the men are just three more jerks tormenting him. But when word spreads around Gotham that a crazed clown is taking out the 1 percent, a “kill the rich” movement arises, with angry Gothamites taking to the street in masks to protest … government corruption? Income inequality? Clown bullying? The political stakes of the demonstrations are never made plain, all the better to make room for whatever personal grievance the viewer wants to throw into the mix. It all culminates in an orgiastic street riot scored, like a music video, to the headbanging anthem “White Room” by Cream. The song choices on this movie’s pop-heavy soundtrack tend to land right on the red clown nose: Before those rich bros on the train go down, one of them taunts Arthur with a rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” As Arthur cakes white makeup onto his hollow-eyed face, Jimmy Durante’s voice croaks out that familiar sentimental standard: “Smile, though your heart is breaking … ”
Since his Oscar nomination for playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix has been drawn to roles that touch on the extremes of inner experience.* This can lead to thrillingly personal work with offbeat directors, as when he played a severely depressed hit man in Lynne Ramsay’s dreamlike thriller You Were Never Really Here. It can also take him down rabbit holes of grotesquerie and self-abasement, as in I’m Still Here, the faux-documentary he made with Casey Affleck documenting his own fictional mental breakdown. Here, the degree of investment he brings to the role is almost comically in excess of the character’s complexity as written. Like De Niro, he’s a technical powerhouse of an actor playing a part he could do blindfolded. Todd Phillips should count himself lucky to have a lead actor capable of intermittently elevating material that amounts, in effect, to a feature-length exercise in voyeuristic self-pity. Poor little clownsie-wownsie: The world gave him no choice but to turn evil.
When Joker opens this weekend, police departments in New York and Los Angeles will be stationing cops at randomly chosen theaters, presumably to forestall anything like what happened in that midnight screening of another Batman movie back in 2012. It isn’t the fault of the film industry that we’re in a place where we need, or think we need, on-site armed protection from the state in order to see a comic-book movie. But the nexus where fictional violence, potential real-world violence, and armed police surveillance come together is not a place anyone feels like settling in with a medium buttered popcorn of a Sunday afternoon.
The chances of coming to harm in a theater showing Joker are likely no greater than the odds of encountering random gun violence in any public space in America—which is to say, still chillingly higher than anywhere else in the world. But the vanishingly slim possibility of an act of copycat violence is only one of many reasons to find something else to do. Don’t skip Joker because you’re offended by its potentially inflammatory message, or because you’re afraid of some nut showing up in the multiplex with a clown mask and a gun. Skip it because there are so many better movies out there to see.
Correction, Oct. 3, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated that Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for Walk the Line. He was nominated for the performance but has never won an Oscar.