For an article published Friday, Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin sat down with the actor and asked whether he worries the new film “might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results.”
Phoenix balked at the question.
“Why? Why would you ... ? No, no,” he stammered before abruptly getting up and leaving the room.
An hour later, after negotiating with a Warner Bros agent, Phoenix returned to finish the interview, explaining that he panicked because he hadn’t yet considered the question. Throughout the rest of the article, Phoenix does not provide an answer.
In “Joker,” Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner with an unsuccessful comedy career who lives with his ailing mother, telling the backstory of the man who would one day become Batman’s arch nemesis. As Collin writes, “he could easily be the latest online message-board extremist to take his grievances murderously viral.”
According to a Hollywood Reporter review, two scenes are particularly hair-raising: one in which Fleck suddenly guns down a colleague point-blank, and another in which riots erupt among his supporters.
Collin’s question about the influence of media depictions of violence on real-world crime is an oversimplification of a complicated area of social science study that requires far more research, but appeared to hinge on the Batman franchise’s tie to tragedy: In 2012, a dozen moviegoers were killed and 70 were injured during a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado.
In a recent interview with SFX magazine, Phoenix acknowledged that while the violence in “Joker” is “a little more visceral and raw” than films such as the Avengers series, he “didn’t have any hesitation about it.”
“You always want it to feel real, and you want the little violence that we have to have an impact,” he said. “What happens in a lot of movies is that you get numb to it, you’re killing 40,000 people, you don’t feel it. While being a fictional story in a fictional world, you always want it to feel real. Everything that happens in this movie as far as violence goes, you feel it.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to remove a reference to rumors that originated in early media reports that the Aurora shooter had described himself as being, or was inspired by, the Joker character. A prosecutor and one of the psychiatrists who studied the gunman in the course of the trial have concluded that this was not the case.