Zazie Beetz: ‘Joker’ Has Sympathy for ‘Isolation,’ Not for Joaquin Phoenix’s Villain

The Venice Film Festival winner has raised questions about whether or not we're supposed to empathize with its central character.
Warner Bros.

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” took home the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, but it didn’t get to the finish line without a bit of controversy. Following the movie’s August 31 premiere, several film critics and journalists wondered if the movie would have toxic and potentially harmful results for those who believe Phillips and Scott Silver’s script empathizes with the title character, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Phillips has been vocal about “Joker” being inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” which infamously led some critics to believe it could encourage violence based on viewers sympathizing with its deeply troubled main character.

“Joker” cast member Zazie Beetz was recently asked by Variety at TIFF about whether or not the movie sympathizes with Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a struggling stand-up comedian and clown for hire whose psychological unraveling leads him to become the notorious Batman villain. The “Atlanta” and “Deadpool 2” actress stars in the film as Arthur’s neighbor and object of desire (think Cybill Shepherd in “Taxi Driver”). Beetz doesn’t deny that “Joker” has a sympathetic viewpoint, but she argued that it’s less towards Arthur/Joker and more towards Arthur’s predicament on a broader scale.

“It’s kind of an empathy toward isolation,” Beetz said, “and an empathy towards what is our duty as a society to address people who slip through the cracks in a way. There is a lot of culture of that right now. So is it empathy for that or just an observation on personalities who struggle?”

Beetz won’t give a definitive answer, and neither will star Joaquin Phoenix when it comes to any part of the film worth discussing. The actor was cagey during interviews at the Venice Film Festival when asked about siding with Arthur. Phoenix told press that any questions they might have about “Joker” will be left up to the audience to decide.

“The great joy of the film for the audience is that they get to decide for themselves [what to think about Arthur’s transformation],” Phoenix said. “That’s what I was attracted to. In most movies, certainly in genre movies where there is a hero and the villain, the motivations of the character are clear. What I like about this is that I was never certain what was motivating him. I have my own opinion. I think I know what it is for me. But I wouldn’t want to impose on anyone who hasn’t seen the movie.”

Following its big win at Venice, “Joker” will next screen at TIFF and NYFF before opening nationwide October 4.

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