Joker is a character study of madness. Traditionally, these sorts of movies will show a person descending slowly from relative normalcy towards insanity. Joker, however, is focussed on one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who is already a 9 or 10 on the crazy meter as the film opens.
This movie isn’t about the descent, it’s about the ascension from a disturbed loner, who only poses a threat to his immediate contacts, into a demigod of chaos, who has potential to spread violence throughout an entire city. Joker is a dangerous movie, one that will surely inspire troubled minds, but Joker is also audacious, beautiful, electric, maddening, bleak, and breathtaking.
The story is simple. Fleck is a pitiful man in a cruel world. He struggles with mental illness and a history of physical trauma. He is a sign-spinning clown by day, advertising “going out of business” sales. By night, he cares for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and dreams of becoming famous as a stand-up comedian. The remainder of the film essentially follows the struggle between nature and nurture, how this world shapes Fleck, how much of his madness is induced and how much of his madness is chosen.
Joker lives or dies by the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. One would think that this character has been mined pretty thoroughly by both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, but Phoenix takes Fleck to much more nuanced and terrifying places. Phoenix’s performance has already been buzzing with Oscar possibilities and these expectations are met and exceeded. His performance is truly remarkable. Many shots are little more than Phoenix’s face, smeared with remnants of greasepaint, as his visage melts from sadness to anger to unhinged joy to malevolent fury. In other scenes, Phoenix dances in a sort of slow motion, evil Tai Chi. His physicality is simultaneously frail and powerful. As we watch him undressing to change into his clown costume, we see his emaciated, bony frame, but never feel as if he is incapable of sudden, coiled violence. Make no doubt, there is violence to be had here and, when it happens, it’s sudden and horrifying.
Then, there’s the Joker laugh. The only thing more iconic than The Joker’s green hair and purple suit is his laugh. Every actor has brought a twist on the laugh, but Phoenix does more acting in just the laugh than most actors do in a whole movie. He laughs as if it is draining his life-force. His laugh is more of a painful sob, uncontrollable, racking him to the point of choking.
If Joaquin Phoenix’s performance supplies two thirds of the power of this movie, Todd Phillips has to be credited with giving Phoenix a vibrant sandbox to play in. With bro-tastic movies like Old School and The Hangover films in his resume, Todd Phillips wouldn’t seem the best-fit for this sort of film. Many people have forgotten that Phillips began his career with a documentary about a real-life Joker-esque figure, Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies. Philips fills his Gotham with grimy alleyways, claustrophobic comedy club, graffiti-plastered subways, and a staircase that would shame The Exorcist. The cinematography is crisp and colorful, not succumbing to the temptation to paint this movie in muted tones, it understands that color and grime are the perfect counterpoints for Joker.
Finally, one can’t discuss Joker without mentioning the obvious cinematic inspirations of Scorsese’s New York as presented in both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I was afraid that the homage would be too direct (especially with Robert De Niro playing talk show host), but for the most part these influences are absorbed into this version of Gotham, adding context instead of distraction. One exception, is an over-used finger gesture taken directly from Taxi Driver. The only other slight distraction to this story is that there is an obvious need to keep the story tenuously rooted in the DC Universe. I realise, ultimately, this is a comic book movie, but every time a character or event reminded me of the comic book roots, I was ironically taken momentarily out of the story. But, these gripes are minor and easily overlooked.
Joker is not an uplifting, crowd-pleaser, but for those looking for challenging, daring cinema with powerhouse acting, this movie is a must-see.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars