Film & TV

Joker: The Most Unsettling of All Comic-Book Movies

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Niki Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
The supervillain origin story is a mesmerizing vista of one man’s crumbling soul.

Where does evil come from? Joker offers the most banal answer imaginable — budget cuts for social workers — but it’s a devastatingly effective portrait of a serial killer in formation, bringing to mind a long, sickening line of American psychos.

More than any comic-book movie to date, Joker, directed with a fierce commitment by Todd Phillips, eschews entertainment and dares to repel a sizable proportion of the potential audience. With an awful foreboding, it drills into the psychic pain of Arthur Fleck — failed clown, failed standup comic, failed human. Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the creepiest performances ever put on film as Arthur, a product of the manifold breakdowns of 1970s New York City, here barely disguised as Gotham City. Phoenix’s rancid torment jangles the nerves and turns the stomach.

Set in a 1981 urban hell piled with garbage and overrun by rats, Joker channels the notorious misfits of the era, including fictional ones: Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Bernhard Goetz, Travis Bickle (whose actions inspired Hinckley, the failed assassin of President Reagan), and Rupert Pupkin (an entertainment-industry isotope of Bickle). The presence in Joker of Robert De Niro, as a talk-show host much like the one who obsessed Pupkin in The King of Comedy, signals that Phillips wishes to re-create a bleary vision of urban squalor that inspired a singular period of cinema, perhaps the bleakest and most potent one ever.

Though Phillips has previously specialized in comedies such as The Hangover, he has made the least funny of the DC or Marvel movies. Joker is brilliantly done, searingly filmed, and so drenched in its seamy milieu that you can practically feel the roaches skittering under your feet. The score by Iceland’s Hildur Guonadottir and production design by Mark Friedberg are spectacular. But a word of caution: Many viewers will find it more nauseating than enthralling. Women in particular are likely to find Phoenix and Phillips’s relentless nastiness too much to take. Although the Bruce Wayne family makes several appearances, there is none of the usual comic-book movie catharsis, none of the leavening jokiness of a Marvel movie, no roguish charm, no Joker delightedly sticking his head out the window of a truck like a golden retriever. Phoenix’s Joker is merely a greasy, mentally unbalanced loser of the kind best avoided on trains or a dark urban block, the kind that women in particular want nothing to do with, maybe not even in a movie.

As is most often the case, Arthur’s problems are traceable to an inability to connect with women; he is alienated from the mom he still lives with (Frances Conroy), who once worked for the business leader Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). He yearns for a kind word from a cute single mom (Zazie Beetz) who lives down the hall in his squalid apartment building. He also has a bizarre tic: He bursts into laughter for no reason, completely out of context. Phoenix’s utterly mirthless laugh is one of the most chilling details of this amazingly detailed film.

Arthur scratches out a living in clown attire, doing odd jobs such as trying to attract customers outside of stores or doing sad gigs at children’s hospitals. When he comes to suspect that Thomas Wayne is his father, he begins to plot revenge, but meanwhile a Johnny Carson–like TV comic (De Niro) mocks a tape of his standup act, and he has an encounter with three Wall Street guys on one of those eerily desolate, graffiti-covered subway cars of the era. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck couldn’t possibly be a worthy challenger to someone like Batman (who hasn’t been created yet), but what he has is something more chilling than cartoon super-villainy: an army of fellow incels, all of them dressed as clowns and ready to make the world burn. Arthur embodies the question of what happens when the folk-hero status of Bernhard Goetz and other vigilantes gets taken to an extreme. A Batman series set in such a morally and literally filthy city, a Sodom of diseased souls that can’t be fixed by cleaning up a few criminals, seems to beckon. What if Batman had a city full of Travis Bickle–Bernhard Goetz loners to deal with?

That factor has brought up a lot of discussion among the first audiences to see the film: By filtering the world through a Joker lens, is the film sympathetic to him? Does it tell diseased weirdos that there is an army of fellow angry losers out there who are waiting to mobilize and riot if only someone would fire the starting gun? Some critics are all but predicting that real-world violence will result from this movie. I’d say those who harbor the potential to be mass murderers have such nonlinear minds that it’s pointless to try to anticipate their reasoning, much less intentionally dilute one’s art to make it less disturbing. Joker does explore a real problem that is much on all of our minds, the problem of violent psychosis, and some will recoil from it. As a cinematic portrait of one shattered American, though, it is spellbinding.

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