In the weeks leading up to its release, this R-rated origins story about the Batman super-villain has been regarded with alarm, caution and fear—with good reason—almost as if it were a mass shooter’s YouTube manifesto rather than the umpteenth attempt to extract new revenue from the DC Comics movie franchise. An Army base in Oklahoma warned commanders to be alert to possible violence at theaters, and several theater chains are banning ticket-holders from wearing costumes or masks.
Director Todd Phillips, in an interview with The Wrap, said he was surprised by the vehement controversy over the movie, which radically reworks the Joker’s becoming-a-monster saga into a portrait of a psychotic Incel who finds release—grotesque validation—by becoming a happily murderous bad guy. “Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence?” Phillips asked. “Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?”
But, as Phillips must know, Joker isn’t just a discussion. It’s a deliberate provocation that borrows freely from unsettling classics like Taxi Driver—from an entire subculture of dangerous, marginalized men that includes Charles Manson, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex and notorious Manhattan subway shooter Bernhard Goetz.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a sad-sack rent-a-clown leading a life of desperation and abuse. He lives in a Gotham that doesn’t look much different from the filthy Manhattan where Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle loses his mind in Taxi Driver. (This was the same era in which President Ford told the city to drop dead and the Rolling Stones sang: “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple—don’t mind the maggots.” No one at that time envisioned a future that would include the High Line walkway or Shake Shacks.)
Plagued with mental illnesses and an uncontrollable laugh that doesn’t have an ounce of mirth to it, he looks as if he’s infested with lice, fleas, bedbugs and possibly termites. Phoenix, who lost 50 pounds for the role, takes several opportunities to show us Arthur’s bony backside: There hasn’t been such a disturbing physique since Jeff Goldblum started metamorphosing into a fly.
The story is as sadistically simple and efficient as the big wheel that crushed Saint Catherine into holy martyrdom: Arthur is beaten and pummeled, emotionally and physically, until he snaps. At that point he gives his hair an ugly green rinse, smears on some clown makeup and becomes the arch-villain who will plague the Caped Crusader and Gotham for years to come. You may feel a perverse emotional surge at his final transformation, but it’s effectively the catharsis of a lanced boil—the movie equivalent of Dr. Pimple Popper.
What will Batman fans make of Joker? Its connection to the overall Batman mythology is deliberately underplayed—the movie is more interested in making us squirm at Arthur’s pathetic attempts at standup comedy. (Phillips gives a heavy nod to De Niro’s The King of Comedy, another masterpiece of freak misanthropy, with the actor in a stunt role as a late-night host.) We’re teased with the feverish gleam of a novel idea when Arthur’s addled mother (Frances Conroy) tells him he’s related to Bruce Wayne’s powerful father, Thomas Wayne. It suggests Great Expectations retold by Boo Radley. But this turns out to be another dead dream, one more bum steer for poor crazy Arthur.
Joker has a nasty, oppressive power, and it never falters in its grim, purposeful momentum. It feels like two hours spent locked in the trunk of a moving vehicle. Given the movie’s models, especially Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, that is probably what director Phillips was aiming for: They represent something greater than a mere franchise blockbuster. As he told The Wrap: “I literally [said] to Joaquin at one point … ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f******** Joker.’ ”
One feels obliged to counter that there have been several “real” Batman movies, made in completely different styles and each deeply upsetting in a singular, original way: Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (the Catwoman one) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger as the Joker.
Phoenix’s Joker, whose break with sanity is the result of an undeviating path of misery and suffering, is ultimately less frightening than Ledger’s version. That Joker had no origins—he was an uncontrollable imp spawned from the head of evil. His malevolence was palpable but unresolvable. Phoenix’s performance is grandly masochistic and grindingly repellent. But is he really confronting us with anything new? In the end, his face streaked with greasepaint as he dances alone in his madness, he isn’t far removed from Bette Davis’s crazy old Baby Jane.
Joker, rated R, is in theaters Oct. 4.