Set in a decaying, rot-infested Gotham City, the Joker attempts to show what happens when society’s “invisibles” are pushed to the breaking point. Kicking fanboy comic-book nostalgia to the curb, Joker brings us face-to-face with the madness that festers beneath the surface of a corrupted society. If Joker were to have a subtitle, it might be: Joker: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
But wait. Am I talking about Joker, the villain who Batman has been fighting for years and who previously has been played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger and who now falls into the hands of Joaquin Phoenix? I am.
Joker, which marches to one of the year's most ominous drumbeats, was directed by Todd Phillips, whose resume includes such raucous comedies as Old School and the Hangover movies. Who knew that Phillips had this kind of haunting, violent and grime-encrusted effort in him?
But then Phillips never worked with Phoenix before and Phoenix, in many ways, is the movie — with everything else working to support the insanity, insecurity, and terror of an incomparable and frightening performance. I don't think it's stretching the point to say that Phoenix and Phillips have used comic book characters to create an anti-comic-book movie.
Having lost considerable weight to play the Joker — a.k.a., Arthur Fleck — Phoenix borders on the skeletal; he’s portraying a man who’s virtually disappearing. His occupation (clown for hire) puts him behind a mask that, at least initially, doesn’t liberate him but pushes him further into anonymity while also subjecting him to any number of cruel derisions.
Everything about Arthur screams misfit, including a disorder that causes him to burst into choking, maniacal fits of laughter that can appear indistinguishable from crying jags and which have no relation to anything that's happening to Arthur at the moment.
Mugged and severely beaten early on, Arthur is prey awaiting rebirth as predator. It’s not an easy transition for Arthur, who previously was institutionalized and who now lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a shabby Gotham apartment building, which he reaches by ascending a steep flight of punishing stairs.
Imprisoned in a child-like state, Arthur only escapes his loneliness when he’s violent. Arthur cares for his diminished mother, even washing her hair as he sits tubside over her nakedness. Hardly good preparation for developing mature relations with women.
I have no idea whether Phillips and Phoenix set out to make this kind of movie or whether it evolved as they began to work together. If the latter, they trusted their instincts and built everything around Phoenix's performance from Mark Friedberg's dystopian production design to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s musical score, which emerges from the screen like a moan, the sound of a soul being crushed.
Set in dingy apartments, dirty subway cars, and littered streets, Joker becomes a vivid, night-crawler of a movie in which its comic-book roots are only half-heartedly acknowledged, and perhaps didn't need to be there at all.
The movie introduces us to young Bruce Wayne, who, of course, will grow up to be Batman. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is an imperious tycoon with contempt for the masses he proposes to save by becoming the city's mayor. He calls them "clowns."
All of this produces a movie that’s compelling in ways that challenge convention while also drawing on the movie past, most notably Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Not only has Robert De Niro, the star of King of Comedy, been cast as a talk-show host, but Arthur aspires to be a standup comedian, a pursuit for which he has no aptitude. He scrawls his idea of jokes into a notebook full of incoherent scribblings, hardly a manifesto.
Yet, when Arthur turns to violence — he shoots three drunken Wall Street types in a subway melee — his actions give rise to a social movement in which protesters don clown masks and shout down those who are rich enough to immunize themselves against the city’s rot.
The irony flows easily because Arthur has no interest in politics. He doesn’t want to change the social order; he wants to be seen, to bask in the limelight of an existence that's finally acknowledged and even celebrated. And, yes, Phoenix's performance also generates pity for this misbegotten figure.
Joker harbors one glaring false note. Arthur tries to form a relationship with a single mother (Zazie Beetz) whose attraction to Arthur challenges credibility. Arthur is too weird for this or any other relationship. Is Beetz's character's attraction to Arthur akin to the concern one might feel for an abused child? Whatever it is, it doesn’t ring true.
You probably know that Joker already has generated controversy. It won the top prize at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival but has been criticized for being too violent, for having the potential to cause violence and for encouraging facile enmity toward achievement and wealth.
On violence: Yes, the movie’s violent and, yes, it contains hints of brutal aggression toward its audience. It’s as if Phillips and Phoenix, with no small amount of defiance, want to challenge audiences to examine their love of villains and their taste for blood. They’re asking what happens if we strip away comic-book protections and show the real thing?
As a result, Joker brings its violence closer to us than most horror movies. Unlike in It Chapter Two, for example, evil isn’t something that recurs in 10-year intervals with supernatural assists; it’s lodged in the twisted psyche of the guy in the apartment next door. It's Taxi Driver's Travis Bickel reborn into a normless world.
Are the movie’s jabs at elitism and wealth justified or simplistic? Simplistic, of course, but don’t misunderstand. Joker isn’t a movie that's likely to inspire profound thoughts or discussions about its deeper meanings; it seems to want what its main character wants for himself, an inescapable and independent existence.
When Arthur fully emerges as Joker, he dances down those same steps that he climbed every day as he headed for his lonesome retreat. It’s a wild, uninhibited release of energy played against Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll, Part 2 -- and it's coming from a figure in clown make-up with a blood-red rictus drawn on his gaunt face.
That moment and others like it -- particularly when Phoenix incorporates dance into Joker's repertoire -- stand as unnerving bits of performance art: frightening, dangerous and eerie. It’s mad anarchy unleashed: terrifying and, in one harrowing moment, in charge. If that doesn't rattle you, I don't know what would.