In some ways Joker is an unfathomable movie. Maybe in a post-Black Panther world it’s not so crazy to have a film about a major comic book character be the belle of the awards season, but it’s still pretty unlikely. Unfathomable that a dramatic actor the level of Joaquin Phoenix would turn in a bravura performance all but assuring him of a Best Actor nomination, for director Todd Phillips whose greatest claim to fame up til now were goofball comedies Old School and The Hangover. That a film about the origin of Batman’s greatest nemesis not only doesn’t feature any Batman in it, but reflects such dark corners of our current society that fears about its impact are pretty damned valid…also pretty unfathomable. Whether you see Joker or not, one thing for sure is that you have to fathom its existence now and all that it brings.
Regardless of the foot-stomping-out-of-interviews denials by Phoenix and Phillips, Joker is undeniably a movie that sees its central character, the lonely societal outcast Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), as something of an everyman. I wouldn’t go so far to say he’s labeled a hero, but “everyman” might be worse. Being a hero takes rare bravery. An everyman is by definition representative of any common person. We don’t want a bunch of people like Arthur Fleck. In Phillips’ vision of 1980s cesspool Gotham City, Fleck is a nobody who exists on the margins. He has a job, such as it is, as a clown who gets sent out wherever a clown would be seen as useful. But Arthur isn’t happy, despite all of his laughter. His laughter, the high-pitched shriek we’ve heard from every actor whose played Joker since the days of Cesar Romero, sounds like a pig crying out its last breath. In a very early scene, Arthur can’t stop himself from laughing in a social worker’s office, due to . We don’t know if we’re meant to laugh with him or flee in terror.
That’s a pretty apt description for the entire movie, honestly.
Arthur doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but life has beaten him down both figuratively and literally. When not treating his unnamed mental illnesses with a number of prescription meds, he cares for his aging mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who holds out hope former employer and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) will come to their rescue. Arthur is more realistic, marginally. Told he was meant to spread joy into the world, Arthur idolizes late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, basically playing the Jerry Lewis role from Scorsese’s The King of Comedy) and sees himself as a standup comedian. No amount of humor is going to change the rancid conditions of Arthur’s living situation or the growing anti-rich sentiment in Gotham. Not even Arthur’s connection with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mom who lives down the hall, can fully change his fortunes.
Phillips’ vision of Gotham City is one of unending squalor, you can practically smell the tons of garbage littering the streets and feel the supposed super-rats scurrying by your feet. Scorsese’s anti-establishment classic Taxi Driver has been cited as an influence, and if you’re going to ape somebody you can do far worse than ol’ Marty. But Phillips latches on to Scorsese too much, from the grimy imagery and use of eclectic soundtrack to balance it, and in other visual cues. We don’t see enough of what Phillips is bringing to the table, other than one particular joke involving a little person that, if it weren’t placed in such a deadly context, would feel right at home in The Hangover. The darkness of Joker is oppressive and a little bit scary, with bursts of violence that are as shocking and unpredictable as Fleck himself. Some will be surprised to see a movie this grim and cynical from Phillips but it’s a journey he’s been on since the The Hangover 3, followed by his gun-running dark comedy War Dogs. His answer to those movies failing to measure up either financially or critically seems to be to go in the complete other direction into utter pitilessness. It’s also worth noting both of those movies went a long way in letting their morally-questionable protagonists off the hook.
And that is a problem Joker is going to have to contend with, or better put, we might have to contend with. That Arthur Fleck is mostly portrayed as a victim of circumstance, clumsiness, a failed mental health system, and the machinations of powerful men is troublesome. In a lesser movie, one less impactful and well-made, we might be able to pretend it’s not an issue. But Joker is a well-crafted film that Phillips makes to feel disturbingly contemporary, and Phoenix has never been better in capturing a man so terrifyingly unpredictable; it’s inevitable that some will connect with Fleck and his plight in dangerous ways. Phoenix’s initial refusal to respond to questions Joker might inspire real-life violence was a mistake, but it’s a by-product of his complete commitment to the role. His emaciated frame appearing too frail to carry the sadness settling within Arthur, Phoenix’s physicality is best described as chaotic. Somehow scarier at his most tranquil, Phoenix occasionally erupts into fits of dance or…well, something resembling dance? His sharp elbows and knees flailing triumphantly one moment, Phoenix shifts on a dime and yanks us with him in a totally different direction. We absolutely have no idea what his Arthur Fleck is going to do next, and I think that’s what separates Phoenix’s version from Heath Ledger’s. I’m not going to sit here and say which one is better; both are just different. Ledger’s version was, at heart, a criminal mastermind. A psychotic one, yes, but a criminal mastermind with a twisted goal in mind. Phoenix’s is a little too grounded, a little too close to home for comfort.
Joker occupies a weird space in that it’s been billed as completely separate from Warner Bros.’ other DC Comics movies, but too often Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver try to have it both ways. While you’re not going to see any capes or super-powers, certain allusions made only serve to take you out of the moment and muddy what the movie’s true intentions are. If there’s one thing Joker doesn’t need to do it’s tease something that isn’t there, when all that it shows us is frighteningly real enough.