In the weeks leading up to the release of Joker, an origin story for the Batman villain, there was a wave of spontaneous handwringing amongst the media and the public at large. Some were under the impression that Joker was going to give us a sympathetic Angry White Male whose inevitable descent into violence and mayhem would be justified, even celebrated, by the filmmakers, and thus legions of incels – the self-proclaimed "involuntary celibates" who spew their resentment towards sexually confident men and women on social media – would be inspired to take up arms and slay hundreds of innocent moviegoers, just like that lunatic who shot up an Aurora, Colorado theater during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. As of this writing, such a thing has not happened in the wake of Joker's release. That so many people feared that it would is somehow appropriate for a character whose name is synonymous with put-ons and pandemonium.
Yes, it's true that Joker's protagonist – here christened, pre-makeup, Arthur Fleck – is a lonely nobody who lives with his mother and gets beaten up by meanies. But this isn't a simple loser-gets-revenge story. It's clear that Arthur is severely mentally ill. He's pitiable, perhaps, but not likable. The best thing we can say about him is that he's trying to deal with his condition – he takes his meds, he reports to his fruitless therapy sessions with a city employee, he hands out explanatory cards to strangers during his uncontrollable laughing fits. But with a troubled family history, an underfunded health care system, and a cruel, cynical society that offers zero solace, there's nowhere to go but down.
Joker is a relentlessly bleak film, one made to look and sound like a '70s urban drama. (Details in the production design suggest that the story takes place in 1981.) Indeed, I was almost taken aback when I first heard the words "Gotham City", then later saw members of the Wayne family. It's easy to forget that this is part of a superhero franchise until Arthur's slow transformation into Joker finally adheres his story to the Batman canon.
Aside from its gritty visual style, what makes Joker feel so un-Joker-like is its leading man, Joaquin Phoenix. This is one of those films, like There Will Be Blood, that exist mainly as showcases for their stars' idiosyncratic performances. Given free rein by cowriter/director Phillips, Phoenix writhes and glowers and cackles and dances and despairs to an exhausting degree, both for himself and the audience. It's a landmark performance, certainly more vulnerable and human than any other actor who's played the part. His Joker isn't the Clown Prince of Crime but a Bernhard Goetz-like loner who, with barely any control over his own narrative, inadvertently becomes the symbol of a violent citywide protest – a laugh riot, if you will.
In fact what makes Joker work for me is how well it reflects today's societal issues without beating us over the head with statements. Its characters conflate personal grudges with political outrage. The privileged are to blame, the poor are to blame, the media is to blame, the government is to blame – everybody is to blame when a society falls apart and an emotionally unstable murderer is treated like an idol.
The movie is also a film geek's dream, with visual callbacks to previous Batman installments (including Tim Burton's original 1989 take) and no small debt to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. (It's impossible that Robert De Niro's involvement in Joker, playing a late night talk show host similar to Jerry Lewis's character in The King of Comedy, is a coincidence.) With numerous allusions to psychos both real and fictional, past and present, the film gives us a lot to unpack.
Whether it's completely successful depends on what you expect. Phoenix's work is undeniably remarkable, as is Hildur Gudnadottir's cello-heavy score. But aside from that, Joker is going to be many different movies to many different people. All I can say is that I found it tense, disturbing, and thought-provoking. It may be fashionable for critics to dismiss or outsmart it, but not me: despite a few implausibilities in the plot, I think it's essential viewing for 2019. And if you can catch it on film, do so.