Film Review: 'Joker'

There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, an R-rated spinoff breaking free of the comic book source material, and evening giving the Joker [Jack Napier] a new name… Arthur Fleck.  Director/co-writer Todd Phillips crafted a thoughtful, character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became a version of the twisted clown we’ve come to know and often love.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, beaten down man who struggling play Happy the clown, pay the bills, and care for his ailing mother. Fleck has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as he’s picked on often and his medical coverage is being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. Fleck’s complex relationship with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) is explored to great effect in the film, as questions arise of Fleck’s paternal lineage.  The one thing that brings Fleck join is his dream of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.

The film is very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. The score from Emmy winner Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl) imbues the piece with  sorrow and emotion while also reminding us of the dark and unhinged nature of our protagonist.

Unfortunately, this level detail and nuance was left out of many of the film’s supporting characters. These characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society.

The inclusion of neighbor and imaginery girlfriend Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core.

The movie picks up a momentum when Arthur moves closer and closer to his version of the Joker, a name given to him interestingly enough by an offhanded commented by De Niro’s Murray Franklin. When Arthur gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising.

Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, and if you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence.

Phillips has delivered a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking 1970s Gotham City where the garbage piles high (a not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The crafty costumes by Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) lend to the overall authenticity of the period and the work of longtime Phillips editor Jeff Groth (Hangover III, War Dogs) is key to accuating Phoenix’s chilly and transformative performance.

The emaciated actor is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is deeply unsettling.  It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention, though hard to avoid comparisons to the iconic, Oscar winning performance of Heath Ledger.