“Joker” is a film whose reputation precedes it. It has a good reputation because it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and Joaquin Phoenix is generating Oscar buzz for his performance as the title character. But it also has a bad reputation because it’s a dark, violent, adult take on a popular comic book character that seems to celebrate irresponsible social upheaval. This in and of itself might not be so bad, except that the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” was connected to a mass shooting in 2012, and some believe that the subject matter in this origin film for Batman’s arch nemesis is inviting a similar incident. With such strong opinions pulling in opposite directions, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the film is… middling. It will ultimately be remembered for its controversy more than anything.
Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a man not incapable of niceness, but who lives in a world that gives him little reason to be nice. He’s a social misfit because he has a condition that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, his psychologist won’t up his meds, his mentally ill mother (Frances Conroy) keeps waiting on a check from Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) that’s never going to come, a garbage strike is making everybody in Gotham City miserable, and people just generally don’t respect him because of his job as a clown. But he has a few solaces in his life, like comedic talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and a neighbor (Zazie Beetz) who’s at least willing to smile at him.
Following a senseless beating, Arthur obtains a gun, which he handles carelessly, firing in his apartment and letting fall out of his pocket in a children’s hospital, which gets him fired. He does have cause to use it on a trio of Wayne Enterprise employees who attack him on a train, but his retaliation escalates from self-defense to sadism. Thomas Wayne makes some ill-advised comments about the killings that fan the flames of class warfare in Gotham. Arthur’s clown visage becomes the symbol of an inevitable uprising as Arthur himself becomes more and more comfortable with violence.
As to that violence, its role in the film has perhaps been overstated. Yes, this movie deserves an R rating and is not appropriate for kids. But it’s not filled with nonstop savagery that pushes the boundaries of the R rating. It mostly consists of shooting, and not to downplay the horrific consequences of gun violence, but I’ve seen the Joker shoot people before. I’ve also seen him electrocute people into skeletons and impale a guy through the eyeball (admittedly just offscreen, but still…). I can’t say that the shootings (and one even softer method) are as shocking as those. I can confirm, however, that one scene with a knife is the single most disgusting ever in a Joker or Batman movie.
Aside from the fact that it involves an iconic character, “Joker” is a pretty standard revenge-on-society flick. It borrows so heavily from Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” not to mention previous Joker movies and comics, that it barely has any ideas of its own. Believe me, I already knew that the Joker thinks that society and the expectation to adhere to its rules are “a joke.” The only thing really memorable about the movie is Pheonix’s performance, which he nails. I’m sure there will be many who try to imitate his bizarre mixture of laughing and crying, but none of them will be able to convey inner torture the way he does. He makes the character interesting, even if the movie surrounding him isn’t.
“Joker” is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. Its running time is 122 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.