From concerns over its depiction of violence to wildly divisive reviews, the new movie “Joker” has generated an enormous amount of pre-release anxiety, conversation and controversy. Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, up to now best known as director of comedies such as “The Hangover” trilogy, this finds both the filmmaker and DC Films moving into new, more disturbing territory.
In the film Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, who lives in Gotham City with his mother, barely holding down a job as a clown for hire. He dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, looking up to talk-show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. After suffering one humiliation and defeat after another, Arthur begins to lash out with violence, inadvertently becoming an underground hero to a city being torn apart by social and economic unrest.
The film nods toward the same enigmatically unnerving qualities as Phillips’ two main acknowledged influences, the Martin Scorsese films “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.”
For a conversation on The Times’ entertainment podcast “The Reel,” Justin Chang, Sonaiya Kelley, Glenn Whipp and Mark Olsen sat down earlier this week to talk about the movie. What follows is a condensed edit of their conversation.
Major spoilers for “Joker” follow.
OLSEN: Justin, in your review you referred to the movie’s “prestige pulp ambitions.” What did you mean by that?
CHANG: “Prestige pulp” is something that you could say even about Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. And “Joker,” I think, plays like it wants to have the same sensibility but just shorter, nastier, a lot more nihilistic and brutal. And of course because it’s from the perspective of the Joker himself, here you are just up close and personal with Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker for two hours. It is done in a very gritty, realistic style by Todd Phillips, which is new for him.
And the fact that “Joker” premiered at major international film festivals and won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and then went on to play Toronto. These are prestige launchpads. This is the studio Warner Brothers’ very shrewd way of positioning the movie as something that is more artistically substantial than the blockbuster comic book movie norm.
WHIPP: It’s a very cynical, glib treatment of societal malaise. It’s not nearly as edgy or as nervy as it thinks it is. So you kind of go through this film waiting for something interesting to happen and it kind of does. It takes about an hour and a half for it to finally happen and this performance by Joaquin Phoenix, there’s some real wacky pleasures in watching it but it’s also just kind of exhausting and very much lacking in dimension. It just keeps hitting the same note over and over but just louder and louder until it explodes at the end. And there’s been so much written and spoken, and we’re contributing to that right now, that I wonder when people see it in theaters what the response will be. Will it be kind of deflating like, “Is that all there is?”
OLSEN: Sonaiya, you’re a fan of superhero movies generally and this film uses the character of the Joker but it’s a new story outside of the sort of official canon. How did you feel about its relationship to its superhero-ness?
KELLEY: I did not care about this movie whatsoever going into it. I was like, “This is DC so let’s manage our expectations a little bit.” And so when I got there I was actually blown away. But it was relentlessly dark and I did spend the entire time checking the exits of the theaters because I thought someone was going to come in and try to kill us. But that said, I enjoyed the movie; I thought that Joaquin did an amazing job. I thought the script did service to the character because you can’t do a Joker movie and not go dark. That character is an iconic villain for a reason.
OLSEN: Obviously we are the kind of people who are just steeped in the discourse around a movie like “Joker.” Do you think general audiences are going to be taking all this meta-textual worry into the theater with them?
CHANG: I wonder how much of all that meta-textual stuff most moviegoers will even have read or absorbed. But I do think that when you have a well-known intellectual property that is given a sort of grown-up spin, and clearly we have a wide range of opinion on “Joker,” but the mere fact that some ambition and some seriousness — even if it’s just self-seriousness — is brought to bear, I think the audience usually responds to that. And when you wed that seriousness with extreme violence as well, all the more so.
There’s been so much talk, of course, about does this movie have the potential to sow seeds of violence? Is it going to incite real-life violence? And you know it’s like anything can incite anything, I don’t even want to go down that path. My mindset is that I think we all feel very strongly on the rights of artists and the pitfalls of censorship. I have to say, though, that given just the anxiety around this movie I have never been more eager for something to just be in and out of theaters as quickly as possible. Make its box office millions and be done. And of course, though, I think the movie is actually going to be in theaters for a while.
OLSEN: Glenn, what do you think it is about this movie, about “Joker,” that’s inspiring these levels of seemingly genuine cultural anxiety and fear even before the movie is even out?
WHIPP: Well I wonder if it’s a bit peculiar to America. The film is opening internationally this weekend, too, and are they having these kinds of fears in other countries? What does that say specifically about the United States that you would be in a movie theater looking for the exit? I don’t think that’s true in other countries. I don’t think I need to say it, we’re in just a much more violent country. And this movie certainly leans into that.
OLSEN: I think it’s also that there is this single lonely man who eventually acts out, is violent himself, but that violence then becomes a match that sets off something bigger. And because of who some of his early victims are, he sets off this wave of discontent with economic inequality. In the movie a newspaper headline reads, “Kill the Rich.”
WHIPP: It doesn’t really handle those societal issues in any kind of meaningful way. I don’t think that this movie is going to inspire violence because of its intellectual depth, because it doesn’t have any. I really feel like Todd Phillips made this movie to be a provocative piece but I don’t feel like there’s really any kind of dimension to it.
CHANG: I would agree with Glenn that I do think its treatment of those issues is pretty glib. It’s sort of telegraphing these ideas rather than really developing them. And this was especially apparent to me on the second viewing from which I still have some admiration for the film and for Phoenix’s performance even though it’s far from my favorite performance of his. He does tortured souls better than anyone and I much prefer his performances in “The Master” and “You Were Never Really Here,” which were a lot more surprising.
But to get back to the “Kill the Rich” subtext and these ideas, in some ways maybe people are inclined to give them a bit too much credit even for having ideas or for gesturing toward them. I don’t think the movie does too much more than gesture toward them. I think what the perceived danger of this movie is that it expresses a measure of sympathy for someone who seems to fit the mold of an incel or of the kind of person who we see again and again commits mass shootings — the lonely, mentally troubled, white male misfit. This movie elicits your pity and your terror.
Does it expect you to be jumping out of your seat and applauding when the Joker is committing his violent acts or when he is sort of voguing on the steps of Gotham City? Or these sort of slo-mo dance sequences where he is embracing his newfound calling as a homicidal maniac? A lot of people may have different answers to that. To me the movie is something of a giant Rorschach blot. Some people will see those scenes as a glorification. I personally do not.
I can only judge my own reaction, which is that I felt pity for this man, partly because he’s played by Joaquin Phoenix and my heart kind of breaks for Joaquin Phoenix whenever I see him on the screen. He is that good at humanizing characters who are hard to love. But I also just recoiled from this character and I was completely repelled by it too.
To me the movie is something of a giant Rorschach blot. Some people will see those scenes as a glorification. I personally do not.
OLSEN I think we’re trying to give some sense of what this all means, what this movie adds up to. It might be useful to head into real spoiler territory here regarding the specific acts of violence that occur in the movie. The first time Arthur acts out he’s being bullied by these three Wall Street types in suits who are giving him a hard time at night on a subway car and he shoots the three of them. Justin, how did you feel when that first act of violence occurs? Did it feel like the movie ruptures or opens up in some way? When it finally happens is it like, “Now we’re getting the stuff I came here for”?
CHANG Here’s the thing, his first victims are such totally douchey characters that you can sort of feel the satisfaction that the movie makes you want to feel a little bit, but you can also say that, OK we’re clearly being manipulated here to hate these guys and to feel that they deserve their death. As you put it, Mark, kind of getting what we came for. But then I do think that there is a power to that moment. But it was really interesting throughout all of the violence in the movie, none of it is surprising. It’s all shocking to watch but none of it is surprising.
OLSEN: And the second major act of violence in the movie is these two guys that Arthur had worked with as party clowns, they come over to his apartment and he ends up brutally murdering one of them by stabbing him in the neck and in the eye with a pair of scissors. And then the second guy he lets him go because he essentially says, “You were always nice to me.” And it’s just a demented scene. It’s really confusing emotionally; there’s something very unpredictable about it.
WHIPP: That scene was just insane. But none of the violence is all that surprising. I saw films at Toronto that contained violence that knocked me out of my seat, the violence was just a real gut punch. “Uncut Gems,” “Parasite,” these were movies where you were invested in the story, invested in the characters. But that particular scene that you just described was, there was a particularly well-crafted act of brutality and really that will be the scene. I think that’s probably the most difficult for people to watch in this film. It’ll be interesting to see if there are some walkouts in the theater. Really well done. But again I mean in terms of craft and acting. But not in terms of storytelling.
KELLEY: I was shocked and I didn’t know what to expect for the other man. But at the same time I feel like it’s important to note that in that, not that this necessarily justifies his violence or anything, but he does only go after the people who have relentlessly bullied him, and especially nowadays where mass shootings are the norm and innocent people are being killed for no reason at all, I am grateful that the filmmaker didn’t just have him murdering random people because that, I think, might send a different message. Not to say that it’s justified that he had a reason to kill these people in the manner that he did. But I thought it was important that he wasn’t a maniac with an agenda to just kill people, which is what we’re seeing today.
OLSEN: One of the best scenes in the movie is when Joaquin Phoenix assumes the Joker persona and goes on this live late-night TV talk show hosted by Murray Franklin, who is played by Robert De Niro. It is just a genuinely terrifying scene simply in its dialogue. The tension between the two of them as they’re talking is really one of the scariest things in the movie even before it erupts into violence.
CHANG: I like that scene too. And it’s one of the things that stays with me the most as well. I actually like how it played out, almost beat for beat. The matter-of-fact way in which it’s staged. The control of the camera. The very darkly funny squirmy cutaways to the other guests on the couch who are sitting next to Arthur and Murray, clearly just uncomfortable and don’t know how to react. I mean in some ways there is more humanity in those characters than the rest of the movie. It’s like, how would I respond? I actually thought about Christine Chubbuck, the reporter who committed suicide on the air and whose story was then told recently in the drama “Christine” and in the documentary “Kate Plays Christine.” I thought about “Network.” So these other ’70s movies or rather ’70s figures who I think are very purposely being overlaid onto the material.
OLSEN: As with “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” the movies that are being referenced most often with regards to “Joker,” there’s this coda that comes after the main story has ended. Here you see Joker in some sort of a mental facility. He’s being interviewed by a woman and they have an uncomfortable exchange and then you see him walking down a hallway and he’s leaving these red footprints, these bloody footprints, behind him. Did he kill that woman? Have we gone inside of his mind? Has he been in this institution all along? Glenn, what did you make of those final moments?
WHIPP: Well I was just worried that it means there’s gonna be a sequel to this movie. And that was probably the most disturbing element to the whole film for me.
KELLEY: I think that he just actually killed her and this was his ascent into murdering people for no reason.
CHANG: This is maybe sort of an obvious thing, my mind just went to “Psycho,” the Hitchcock classic which ends with Norman Bates grinning at the camera with a skull superimposed on his face, though maybe it’s just too obvious whenever you’re dealing with the subject of matricide. Although I think I agree with what Sonaiya said that the inference you’re supposed to draw is that he killed her. But I’ve also heard somebody say that maybe the end when he is sort of held aloft and becomes the clown hero of all these clown-mask vigilantes, that maybe a lot of that is his hallucination. I don’t know. This is where the script gets tricky and there are layers of ambiguity that you can spend a lot of time unpacking.