Is Joker art, or is it ugly, empty nihilism? Maybe that question shouldn’t matter; it might honestly be both. But the truth is that entertainment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a movie with the message this one hammers home again and again — that life is nasty and short; that no one cares; that you might as well burn it all down — feels too volatile, and frankly too scary, to separate from the very real violence committed by young men like Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in America almost every day.
Todd Phillips’ film is an origin story, which means that we know approximately where it’s all headed, just not quite how he’ll get there. And so Arthur, a lonely part-time clown who lives in a crumbling tenement with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy), goes through his early stations of the cross: the romantic rejections, the random beatings by teenage street punks, the countless small humiliations that make up his daily life. The only good thing, maybe, is his blossoming romance with a neighbor, luminous single mother Sophie (Zazie Beetz).
When a trio of drunken Wall Street goons attack Arthur in a subway car, he reaches a breaking point. The fallout from that incident lights the match for an already on-edge Gotham City — plagued by garbage strikes and “super rats” and general civic decay — sending angry mobs into the streets in protest.
There are other plot threads to follow, several of them heavily expositioned toward the Wayne family and Arthur’s own murky past, as well as his dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian and finding a way to meet the man he pictures as a sort of kindly father-figure surrogate, late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But for all that’s going on, Phillips’ viewpoint is often feverishly interior and self-contained; a narrative stricture that serves the purpose, perhaps, of allowing viewer into the nightmarish, nonlinear world Arthur’s tortured mind occupies.
It should be said that Phoenix is stunning in the role: a figure adjacent but entirely apart from Jack Nicholson’s leering cartoon or Heath Ledger’s giddy, commanding anarchist. He feels possessed by the part, communing with Arthur’s hurt and rage and raw vulnerability even as he falls deeper into whatever kind of spiders-in-the-brain psychosis the willful halting of his meds lets in.
The details of his performance — the manic laughter and mood swings and wild, demented dancing — are indelible; maybe that’s why it’s so hard to watch him become the movie’s hero to the extent that he does. Phillips doesn’t just observe his (de)evolution; he seems to revel in every rung of madness that Arthur descends, and in the growing fame and adulation it brings him.
Maybe he only sincerely means to capture and reflect the times; a mirror held up to the anger and alienation and class disparities that have shaped the world we find ourselves living in. The rules of the movie’s moral universe, though, don’t point toward some greater good as much as they just seem to celebrate — or at least tacitly approve — chaos as a cure for hopelessness, or merely for its own destabilizing sake.
Which is not to say that the vast majority of grown adults who see the film won’t be able to recognize that, or differentiate between Hollywood fiction and real life. But in a moment when internet culture can cancel a movie as minor as The Hunt for fomenting “anger and hate,” the wider impact Joker is poised to make seems far more dangerous. And the idea that even one viewer might take its convictions at face value, and then act on them, feels like no joke at all.
(We’ve chosen not to grade Joker, which had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and comes to theaters Oct. 4)