Credit: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

It was Joker‘s day at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday. Fresh off their shocking Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival, the team behind the dark take on the Batman villain gathered for another night of celebration: First, for Joaquin Phoenix, an honoree at TIFF’s first-ever Gala Awards, and then for the film itself, making its North American premiere at the Roy Thomson Hall.

Joker played to a packed house in Toronto and, as it unsettlingly and violently delivered the villain origin story it promised, reminded audiences why it was such a controversial play out of Venice. The film traces Arthur Fleck’s journey from lonely, misunderstood, mentally ill outsider to a domestic terrorist. It speaks closely and intently to current discourse over alienation and gun violence in America, particularly among white men, but muddies the message by not only sympathizing with and delineating his turn toward villainy, but finding room for a kind of cult worship of his infamous killings as well.

It’s a dark, provocative film in other words. Out of Venice, it proved polarizing. Strong notices came from the likes of The Guardian and Variety, while a few other major publications panned the film. As Stephanie Zacharek reviewed for Time, “The movie lionizes and glamorizes Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior.”

Robert De Niro, Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz and Bradley Cooper
Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Expect the controversy to continue and mount as the film hurtles into awards season, where it’s likely a contender across the board, and Phoenix is a Best Actor frontrunner. One chilling indication of the film’s potential real-world impact came late into the film when Arthur makes his first murder as Joker, a gruesome, horrifyingly realistic killing. Immediately after the act of it, someone in the Roy Thomson audience enthusiastically cheered.

The film’s screening was followed by a Q&A with director Todd Phillips and the cast, including Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, and Robert De Niro, as well as Phoenix. It was a jarringly light and sunny segue that began while the end-credits were still rolling. (No questions about the film’s unsettling real-world echoes were asked.) On stage, both Phillips and Phoenix gushed that there were “no rules” in the making of the movie, and that’s why they were so drawn to the material. “Honestly I didn’t f—ing know,” Phoenix said of when he first signed on. “It started becoming something more than I could’ve anticipated. It was one of the best experiences of my career.”

Beetz, Conroy, and an amusingly quiet De Niro — he didn’t much take to a question about which of his beloved ’70s films Joker reminded him of, a follow-up to Phillips naming them as a major influence — answered a question apiece before the very brief post-screening discussion wrapped with a final question for Phillips: Known for directing comedies like The Hangover, will he now make more movies like Joker? He brought it around to Phoenix. “I would do anything with him,” Phillips said. “I want him to be in Hangover 4.”

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