One of the more fiendishly clever choices Christopher Nolan made in his magisterial middle Batman movie, The Dark Knight, was to clown on the very idea of “motivation.” Heath Ledger’s unforgettable version of The Joker, a prowling nihilistic terrorist in rotting makeup, kept offering different explanations for the grotesque scar-tissue grin cut across his face—and it’s only on the second time around, when his story changes completely, that we realize he’s improvising, not unburdening. Nolan may have lifted the idea from Alan Moore’s seminal The Killing Joke, which cooked up a tragic backstory for the Clown Prince Of Crime, then hedged it with a wink: “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it be multiple choice,” the villain quipped. But in The Dark Knight, this slipperiness becomes a joke at the expense of origin stories themselves—including, most irreverently, the one Nolan had just told with the previous film in his series. Batman, in this movie world, is a product of trauma and loss, a hero born from his issues. The Joker just is.
Todd Phillips’ Joker, an R-rated comic book psychodrama arriving today on a wave of scandal and hype, has other ideas. It plays like a feature-length version of one of those sob-story monologues the Ledger incarnation of the character tosses out before putting a knife in someone’s mouth, except that the irreverent punch line never comes. This Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, really is a melancholy misfit, a guy so damaged that his signature cackle is actually involuntary: a Tourette-like response to emotional duress. His sad-clown origin story is so morosely serious that it flirts with self-parody, like Frank Miller doing Pagliacci. The film wouldn’t exist without Nolan’s ambitiously bleak take on the DC universe, yet it makes those operatic caped-crusader adventures look breezy by comparison. And though it chronicles the formative years of a homicidal prankster, Joker is almost entirely humorless. Which might seem surprising, given that it’s been directed by the guy who made the Hangover trilogy and Due Date. To be fair, those movies weren’t funny either.
Joker is set in 1981, in a Gotham City as unreal—in its grimy, gritty way—as Tim Burton’s. If the 1989 Batman city-planned from a blueprint of German silent classics, the model this time is the mean streets of a New Hollywood New York, a beautiful reconstruction of a chaotic Nixon-to-Reagan-era metropolis. Our larval-state Joker, meanwhile, is Arthur Fleck, who doesn’t much resemble archenemy material. Like Joe, the hulking vigilante Phoenix played in You Were Never Really Here, Arthur lives with his elderly, ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in a rat-nest apartment. Although he makes ends meet as a rent-a-clown, what he really wants to be is a stand-up comedian. It’s a goal that seems a little out of reach, given his rather crippling mental illness; he’s on seven different medications, none of them much helping. Plus, as his mother asks, “Don’t you have to be funny to do that?” (Okay, there are a few laughs.)
Phoenix, that reliably riveting Method changeling, isn’t the first great actor to take on the role of the most iconic bad guy in all of comics. (Ledger’s brainy, menacing interpretation may be the gold standard, though don’t count out the magnificently hammy voice work of Mark Hamill.) But we’ve never seen a Joker quite like this. Early into the film, Arthur sits in the audience of a comedy show, giggling randomly and off-cue at the routine he’s watching (this is his other laugh, a phony high-pitched one he forces out to prove that he gets a joke when he doesn’t), and you realize that this take on the character is a man totally disconnected from the world, doing a very unconvincing imitation of an adjusted person. Almost inhumanly gaunt, skin pulled tightly over the bony ridges of his spine and ribcage, Phoenix offers a theatricality more alien, and more accidental, than the character usually possesses. The film’s most indelible image is the repeated spectacle of him dancing on a staircase or just behind a curtain, jutting and swaying to the private opera or rock concert in his head.
How will this meek, broken man become the flamboyant, big-top crime boss to rule them all? The question looms over Joker’s slow-burn character study, which does eventually get around to tying itself into the larger DC mythos, and to linking the title character to his masked adversary, in a way not so different than Burton’s Batman. Mostly, though, Joker feels insulated from franchise master plans—and from the general way superhero pictures, our most dominant big-screen entertainments, tend to operate. There are no bam-pow fisticuffs, and no CGI fireworks either; the only special effect is Phoenix, twisting his limbs and soul into nightmarish new shapes. Phillips builds the whole movie around his powerhouse lead performance. This may be the first ripped-from-the-comics spectacle that’s also, essentially, a one-man show.
Yet for all its novelty and craft, Joker is more of a stylish stunt than anything else. It pantomimes ’70s grit, wearing it like an extravagant vintage suit. Phillips, one-time frat-comedy specialist, aped Martin Scorsese’s style in his last movie, War Dogs. This time, he’s performing something closer to a ritualistic tribute. How else does one account for the casting of the Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, Arthur’s talk-show host hero—a role that’s basically a mirror reflection of the one De Niro played against in The King Of Comedy? Or the moment when Phillips films Phoenix from behind as he staggers down a sidewalk, and we can see in the actor’s gait the unmistakable phantom of Travis Bickle, that seething rat in the big-city cage? Look, even, at Arthur’s meet-cute with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), the single mother who lives down the hall and offers him a faint chance at real connection; it hinges on the finger-gun-to-temple gesture from Taxi Driver. Phillips skillfully mimics the look and vibe of these classics of alienation, but he doesn’t really key into their insight, their personality, their worldview. He’s made a dorm-room homage, a comic-con cosplay of Marty’s best.
Joker, which inevitably earns the MPAA rating it courted, is very much a story of self-actualization through violence. That lends it a certain, undeniable topicality; maybe that’s what the jury at Venice, who handed the film the coveted Golden Lion, saw in it: a cracked-mirror reflection of the hostility and resentment that colors so much American horror, the massacres committed by armed young men. Phillips and his co-writer, Scott Silver, are making a valid point about the way our culture ignores mental illness and those living with it. (It’s after Gotham cuts social services, severing Arthur’s access to medication and counseling, that things get bloody.) But there’s no denying that by adopting the perspective of its budding killer, Joker risks making his rise to notoriety look triumphant—like a rebirth, the outcast getting over on a world that’s abused and neglected him. By the finale, when Arthur’s cresting madness begins to dovetail with a revolt against the 1% (including a certain familiar, wealthy family), one can at least grasp why the film has some spooked.
Of course, real Scorsese movies have been appealing to the “wrong” crowd since Taxi Driver, a film so vivid on the mind of a psychotic wannabe assassin that it spoke deeply to an actual psychotic wannabe assassin. Joker, a bastard offspring whose supposed irresponsibility feels like just another element lifted from Marty’s playbook, deserves to be judged outside of the controversy that’s sprung up around it. Which is to say, the film’s sins are mostly dramatic. It’s striking and almost touchingly well-acted (Phoenix commits inside and out to the role, as he always does), and though its whole style and attitude is borrowed, both almost look distinctive when applied to a genre not exactly filthy with commanding visions, even derivative ones. Yet there’s also, in the end, something disappointingly one-note about Phillips’ portrait of madness and despair in a fictional city that never sleeps. Maybe it’s that Arthur, literally and figuratively beaten into the pavement, never really has a shot; we know from the first moment we see him, tugging his lips into an artificial smile, that he’s lost, and nothing more than a spot in the Gotham rogues’ gallery awaits him. Maybe that other Joker had it right: Origin stories are a joke.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Toronto International Film Festival.
CORRECTION: This review previously stated that the man behind the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting “donned the costume of The Joker” a rumor that has since been debunked.