"Is it just me or are things getting crazier out there?" Arthur Fleck asks his state-appointed social worker. We know "out there" will soon turn Fleck into Joker, one of Batman's greatest enemies throughout comic, TV, and film history. But Joker isn't much concerned with being—or even connecting to—superhero lore. It's a pitch-black study of the man who becomes The Joker, and the kind of world that forces a broken man to put himself back together the only way he can survive: as a cruel, evil symbol of hate.
Joker is a radical departure from other comic book origin movies (and, yes, we do get yet another remixed Bruce Wayne origin story here, too). Director Todd Phillips, working from a script he wrote with Scott Silver, bypasses any and all genre conventions and delivers something more akin to a straight horror film than anything else, and while there's a transgressive thrill in watching this admittedly bold new direction, Joker is empty at its core. This is a film that provokes, shocks, and disgusts only in the most surface-level ways, and ends before anything approaching a coherent message can be made, let alone found.
The grade-school cynicism is what cuts Joker off at the knees before it can really even get going: Arthur is written as more of a petulant sad sack than a beleaguered soul lost in a cold city; The society that rejects and attacks him receives only a passing attempt at any kind of real cultural commentary on the part of Phillips and Silver (news anchors clutch pearls over growing "anti-rich sentiment" in Gotham, in a line that would be funny and bolstering if the film bothered to explore it any deeper). If there is a story in Joker concerned with society's ills and the radicalization of those who consider themselves abandoned, it's a flimsy one. In the wrong hands, it's an irresponsible one.
Joaquin Phoenix, naturally, is very, very good as Fleck. Phoenix is never anything other than entirely committed to any role he takes, and, like many character actors before him, chose to physically alter himself for the role, losing close to 50 pounds to play Arthur, who seemingly never consumes anything other than cigarettes, nearly constantly. Fleck has a sick, overbearing mother (Frances Conroy) and a host of unnamed psychological conditions, at least one of which manifests in sudden outbursts of laughter at inappropriate moments, which serves to alienate strangers. It's another big, impressive performance from Phoenix, but even in a film that daren't look away from Arthur's grim, gaunt face for more than a few moments, it's a thinly-sketched character that over-relies both on its actor and the audience's implied familiarity with where this all ends up to fill glaring holes in the writing. Phillips is much less interested in making an original film here as he is remixing some of the greats, most notably (to the point of blatant cribbing), Martin Scorsese's oeuvre (the legendary King of Comedy and Taxi Driver director was originally on board Joker as a producer). Robert De Niro is even along for the ride as a late-night talk show host whom Arthur idolizes, and who becomes involved in the film's unearned, nonsensical climax.
But good technical filmmaking can help cover for a multitude of other sins, and it's undeniable that Joker looks and sounds better than any other comic book film in recent memory. Phillips's direction is weak—a mid-movie "twist" is revealed in such a heavy-handed way it's almost parody—and he seems far too in love with Phoenix's character work, but Hildur Guðnadóttir's pounding score and Lawrence Sher's assured cinematography truly realize a hostile, visceral Gotham. Joker is set in the 1980s, presumably for little more than aesthetics reasons (and, charitably, Batman logistics, but don't hold your breath for a sequel here) but Arthur Fleck's world feels fully recognizable enough for us to feel intimidated and persecuted by it, while being just off-kilter enough for a sense of wrongness, of danger, to persist throughout. It's enough to drive anyone mad.
But it's still not enough to prop up a film that's as reverent in some areas as it is lazy in others. This should be a desperate, horrid, angry scream into the void. Those who have wrung hands over Joker's glorification of real-world violence can rest easy: This is not a dangerous piece of art. It's a cynical and derivative thriller with a couple of genre tweaks, which does just enough to get our attention but can't even be bothered to do anything with it.
Originally Appeared on GQ