Roger Ebert used to rate movies on a scale of one to four stars — but actually, he sometimes went even lower. There was one-half star for movies that were really excruciatingly bad, and then there was the rare zero-star rating, for movies that went beyond bad. A zero-star movie might not even be technically incompetent, but it was so offensive that it made the world a worse place by the fact of its existence.
I walked into a preview screening of Joker, the new supervillain origin story, knowing it was controversial, but ready to keep an open mind. I sat down in the press row in a packed house and watched an extremely well-crafted film unfold. It’s darkly stylish, a gritty throwback to the visceral cinema of the ’70s and the apotheosis of Gotham City’s onscreen journey from the campy cardboard of the ’60s through Tim Burton’s expressionist fantasia of the ’80s and Christopher Nolan’s technocratic dystopia of the 2000s. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips, best-known for comedies like Old School and the Hangover trilogy, had a vision and executed it with confidence, coherence, and creativity that’s truly impressive.
And yet, when I walked out, I didn’t feel the sense of elation that usually follows a well-made movie, even one that’s challenging or disturbing. My partner and I drove home in silence: not praising the movie, not critiquing it, not even talking about the weather or the music on the radio. We just sat there, watching the stripes on the highway go past. I thought to myself, that was either a four-star movie or a zero-star movie.
There are going to be plenty of people who give it four stars, and a lot of the discourse and concern around the movie has involved the question of exactly who those people are going to be. This movie made me feel like an accomplice to atrocity. It feels like a loaded gun. To say so is, in a sense, a credit to Phillips: I’ve seen a lot of movies with a lot more guns in them, and felt nothing more than bored.
Joker has, essentially, one gun, but it looms larger than all the heavy artillery in The Predator. It’s a powerful symbol, until it becomes a deadly weapon. Sound familiar? Yes, it does, because there’s a mass shooting every day in America. Don’t forget the popcorn.
Phillips plugs actor Joaquin Phoenix into an early Reagan-era Gotham City, where his character Arthur is literally a pathetic clown, called on the carpet because his boss can’t believe he was mugged on the street for nothing more than a sign advertising clearance prices. He lives with his shut-in mother (Frances Conroy), who once worked for billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and harbors what may or may not be delusions about their relationship. He’s obviously troubled and takes a variety of medications until Gotham cuts funding for social work.
In a meta-cinematic casting coup, Robert De Niro plays a wildly popular if not particularly funny talk-show host, and Arthur’s eventual encounter with De Niro will prove the film’s answer to Martin Scorsese’s iconic Taxi Driver. Nobody ever called De Niro’s character Travis Bickle a good guy, but Phillips sets his bar: Joker is going to be worse, far worse.
Taxi Driver was seen, and is still hailed, as a commentary on the malaise of America in the post-Vietnam era; Bickle is a vet who bears the scars of a conflict that asked its soldiers to take lives in the service of what they knew, or learned, to have been essentially a vanity war. That’s one of the little tricks Phillips plays in Joker: Vietnam is quietly erased.
Travis Bickle was rooted in New York City, but Arthur Fleck is living in Gotham City, a comic-book character who’s trapped in his own highly compromised mind. Phillips puts us in there with him, and selects the signposts we get to see. It’s a triumph of style, but so was Triumph of the Will.
Among the many colorful villains Batman’s faced, the Joker’s always been his best match, because the clown-faced character provides a foil to the black-clad crime fighter’s ultra-somber demeanor. Batman never laughs, whereas the Joker always does. Burton heightened the surreality of this distinction by casting a comedic actor (Michael Keaton) as Batman and an actor known for malevolent anarchy (Jack Nicholson) as Joker.
Here, Batman (Dante Pereira-Olson) is still just a young boy. That makes this a particularly pure origin story for the Joker: it’s all about him. At one point, Phillips pulls back on a grid of televisions to reveal that the violence Arthur has unleashed is completely consuming media coverage in Gotham City. In contrast to a Marvel Cinematic Universe that’s started to feel like a series of clown cars, DC is giving us just one really scary clown.
Like, really scary. Like, you’re scared that he’s going to come out of the screen in the form of one of the people sitting in the theater around you. The horrific Aurora movie-theater mass shooting took place at a Batman movie screening (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012), a fact Phillips cynically exploits in playing on viewers’ fears.
Or is he merely playing on that fact in the service of a provocative work of art? That’s the line you can follow to four stars, if you’re so disposed. You can cite Phoenix’s indisputably magnetic performance, the careful way Phillips builds to his breakout scene set to the music of convicted sex offender Gary Glitter, the portrayal of stand-up comedy as an arena where Arthur fires blanks before picking up that gun loaded with live rounds, the subtle and unsubtle nods to preceding jokers from Charlie Chaplin to Heath Ledger. You could pull passages from this very review to argue that I’m describing what’s objectively a very good movie.
Criticism is never entirely objective, though, and nor is filmmaking. My gut is telling me something other viewers’ guts have told them, and that Phillips either didn’t feel or decided not to heed: Joker is in fact a very bad movie, not because of what’s onscreen but because of what’s not.
Just as Vietnam has been scrubbed from the setting, so have sex and race. Arthur develops a stalker-like fixation on his neighbor, a black woman played by Zazie Beetz. I won’t tell you how that ends, but neither does Phillips: he cuts away, as he does every time Joker beats down on a person of color. The shootings we see are white guys, starting with a trio of Wall Street types (they work for Wayne, we learn) harassing a woman on the subway. We can enjoy, in a sense, watching Arthur go vigilante on these guys because they’re privileged and odious.
Here’s that crucial edit. In reality, it’s the least privileged members of society who are the first to be shot and the last to get justice. Phillips invokes the very real, truly terrifying trope of the emasculated (in his mind) and armed (in his pocket) white guy to scare us, but doesn’t actually engage with the world outside that guy’s mind.
In that guy’s mind, like Joker, he might be burning down the system that spurned him: and if it spurned him, the narcissistic antihero, it must be corrupt. There’s a certain popular Twitter account that advances just such a narrative on a daily basis, and in its author’s mind he must look just as cool as Joker does, dancing his little dance and getting away with everything.
In a recent review of a book about ’80s movies, I wrote, “if you wanted to get a vital read on the national pulse in 2019, you certainly wouldn’t turn to Hollywood.” I now admit that I was wrong. Can Todd Phillips?