Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
To say that Joker is a disturbing film would be to give the word disturbing weight that it wasn’t designed for. Joker is frightening, haunting and so problematic that I had trouble speaking for hours after watching the film and lost some sleep. That sounds dramatic but it’s how I respond to films. And this character – one of pop culture’s greatest villains – has the power to do that.
Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was the stuff of nightmares. To look at him was to look into the heart of darkness. But in Joker, director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix take it further. They place us inside his head. We see what causes a mentally ill loner to blossom into an unhinged killing machine and we sympathize with him. We are repulsed by him but we are also rooting for him to tear down the indifferent, smug establishment. He unleashes anarchy and we smile with him as he watches the world burn.
The film gets into your bloodstream because it’s so skillfully crafted. At the center of course is Phoenix as the Joker. But for most of the film we don’t see him as the crown prince of crime. This is an origin story and the formidable Joker is a wretched clown for hire named Arthur Fleck. Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver reimagine the comic book world so Joker is a period film with a gritty, frayed, Scorsese-style quality. The CGI is at a bare minimum. The film is set in late 1970s-early 80s New York and carries the DNA of films of that era like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Dog Day Afternoon, Network. DOP Lawrence Sher and art director Laura Ballinger do a masterful job of rendering an urban hell.
Gotham is, quite literally, a mess because the sanitation department is on strike. There’s trash everywhere and the residents seem to be stewing in stench and sickness. Especially Arthur. Arthur’s mother calls him Happy which is a grand irony because as Arthur tells us, he’s hasn’t been happy for one minute of his entire life. Most people treat Arthur like the garbage they are side-stepping on the pavement and his tenuous grip on reality slowly comes apart. As he says, it’s enough to make anyone crazy.
The film is so intensely focused on Arthur and justifying his descent into madness that it doesn’t substantiate the other threads of the narrative – like a sub-plot of a romance with a neighbor
You’ve never seen crazy done like Phoenix does it. Arthur suffers from a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably but this laughter is a breath away from tears. There are scenes in which he barely seems human – Phoenix is so thin that when he removes his shirt you can see bones sticking out at impossible angles. Arthur is pathetic but his eyes flash a gleam of the delight that comes from having nothing to lose. When he kills, his angular, wiry body seems to reverberate with power.
Phoenix is practically in every frame of this film. He’s hypnotic and he holds Joker together. The other actors, which includes Robert de Niro playing a talk show host Arthur worships, are eclipsed by Phoenix’s show-stopping performance. In any case, the film is so intensely focused on Arthur and justifying his descent into madness that it doesn’t substantiate the other threads of the narrative – like a sub-plot of a romance with a neighbor. Yes, Batman makes an appearance but he’s a child.
At one point, Arthur writes in his diary – the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as though you don’t. Ultimately though, the film doesn’t take this insight anywhere. As social commentary, it’s pretty thin and morally specious.
Joker is artful nihilism. And despite its dazzle, it’s hard for me to get behind that.