The concept of the new “Joker” movie should have been enough to excite me from the start. A dark, psychological, and unflinching dig into the mentally fractured life of the most iconic DC Comics villain? Right up my alley. And then you top it off by casting the insanely intense and always committed Joaquin Phoenix. All the ingredients are there yet since the very first trailer I found myself more cautious than enthusiastic.
Three concerns kept my expectations in check. 1) The film is from Todd Phillips whose movies I generally struggle with and who has never done anything quite like this. Could he pull it off? 2) Phillips came out early saying “people are gonna be mad“. Did that mean he was straying completely away from the source material and simply milking the Joker name for attention and publicity? 3) Lastly, much of what makes Joker so unsettling comes from the mysteries of who he is and where he comes from. Would lifting that veil strip the character of his signature menace?
The quick answers to those questions: Yes, No, and No. More pointedly, what Phillips has made is pretty spectacular – a relentlessly grim character study of a madman on the edge and a stinging rebuke of the morally bankrupt society that pushes him over it. Furthermore, no one can say “Joker” is politically agnostic, but its societal critique is far from one-sided and the film features more narrative and critical depth than I ever expected. Oh, and it’s also one cracking setup for one of pop culture’s most sinister villains.
“Joker” is a comic book movie similar to “Logan” in that it was let off the studio leash and allowed to make its own rules. It isn’t bound by any genre convention or expectation and it has no direct tie to any previous DC movie. This gave Phillips and company a ton of freedom and obviously they ran with it. Most surprising to me (a long-time fan of the Clown Prince) is how Phillips impressively balances having an original vision with capturing the essence of such an established character.
The movie’s bleakness begins with its introduction to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) who lives with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) on the impoverished outskirts of Gotham City. Arthur is an ambitious but unstable man who works for a rag-tag clown-for-hire agency but dreams of one day being a stand-up comedian. From the very beginning we know the deck is stacked against him and that’s a big part of Phillips’ message.
You could say Arthur represents society’s fringe, the dismissed and disenfranchised. They are vividly contrasted with the powerful upper-class elites embodied in billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). The concept of the ‘haves’ vs. ‘have-nots’ is a central premise and it’s often quite potent. Other times it can be glaringly on-the-nose. But it does feed the idea that Gotham is a powder keg where crime and poverty grows in one community while the other seems oblivious to it.
But it’s not as though Arthur finds compassion among the hardened lower-class. Even there he is considered an outcast. The lone exception is a sweet single mom (Zazie Beetz) who lives in the apartment down the hall. But even she can’t keep Arthur from cracking. Soon his fragile optimism gives way to angst and bitterness revealing something much darker curdling within him. In a way he begins to mirror Gotham City – a ticking time-bomb inevitably bound to explode. This leads the story deeper into the depths of human depravity as Arthur inadvertently triggers an equally vile side of humanity masquerading as an uprising.
All of those story beats are important but the real genius of “Joker” is in how it puts us in Arthur’s head. The entire story is told from his point of view. It’s a critical use of perspective that drives the movie and infuses it with some unexpected psychological layers. Arthur is our narrator, our guide through a madman’s mind as his derangement festers. But how reliable is he and how much of what we see can we believe? This fact vs. fiction dynamic is key.
There lies the wickedly effective trick Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver pull off smashingly. And it’s one that has provoked a bevy of different interpretations. Take the controversies that have sprung up since the film’s enthusiastic debut at the Venice Film Festival. Accusations that it incites and/or condones violence comes from very strict and literal readings of a few provocative scenes. But nothing about the story or its structure encourages a strict, literal reading.
I don’t want to completely dismiss the criticisms simply because I can’t speak to how it may effect someone in a troubled head-space. And while the film doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive examination of mental illness, some could find it’s tough-minded and unwavering portrayal of its subject matter to be problematic. Despite that, neither the movie’s message nor its intent is the promotion or acceptance of violence. In fact, its convictions are far more judgmental and damning.
Perhaps most important is how the script allows plenty of room for Joaquin Phoenix to let loose. His performance is raw, intense and hypnotic. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him. Whether it’s his jarring physical transformation (rumor has it he lost over 50 lbs for the role) or the chilling gaze of his cold, empty eyes. Phoenix brings an astonishing amount of ‘new’ to a character that’s been done many times before. I can’t see a scenario where he doesn’t get his fourth Oscar nomination.
Other standout reasons for the film’s success: Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir creates what is easily one of my favorite scores of the year. Her music is haunting and unsettling yet never intrusive. And so often it’s pivotal in developing and managing the film’s edgy tone. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher shoots both Arthur and Gotham with the same gritty, arresting visual aesthetic and several of his images are still etched in my mind. And I haven’t even mentioned Robert De Niro. He plays Gotham City’s Johnny Carson, a late night talk show host named Murray Franklin. Think Rupert Pupkin if he had made it big. He is who Arthur dreams of one day becoming.
As “Joker” slow-walks us towards its eventual maelstrom of iniquity it never spells out how we should feel about its titular character. It burrows under our skin and plays with our perceptions, but ultimately it’s up to us to sort it all out and reach our own conclusions. Considering the controversies maybe that has backfired a bit. But a more thoughtful evaluation reveals an audacious film that isn’t cavalier towards its violence nor numb to its effects. I saw it as a terrifying warning and an indictment of a society that not only creates monsters but often lifts them up. Then again, maybe that’s all in my head.
VERDICT – 5 STARS