“Joker” is a deeply disturbing, wholly unsettling profile of villainy masked as popcorn entertainment.
Director Todd Phillips Trojan Horses a story about a mentally unstable loner gone mad in a cruel, unforgiving world into a blockbuster origin story about everyone’s favorite Batman villain. It’s bold, it’s daring, it’s subversive, and it’s thrilling.
But it ain’t no comic book movie.
Joaquin Phoenix gives the year’s most haunting performance as Arthur Fleck, the rent-a-clown who inspires a people’s uprising. Or maybe he doesn’t. “Joker” holds some cards close to its chest, and there’s questions of what unfolds in reality and what transpires inside Fleck’s mind.
But Phoenix is so unforgettable as Fleck that he makes previous iterations of this character — including Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in “The Dark Knight” — look like the actors playing him were just clowning around.
As Arthur, Phoenix moves like Jagger, twisting and turning his body like his bones are made of elastic. In silhouette, he looks like a contortionist who can bend into any shape he pleases. But Phoenix’s greatest asset is his face, hollowed out and gaunt, his eyes sunken in and empty. Arthur’s laugh — involuntary and oftentimes inappropriate — is part of a medical condition for which he apologizes by handing strangers a typed explanation. It’s more a cry than it is a chuckle.
“Is it just me or are things getting crazier out there?” Arthur asks. It’s not just him.
It’s 1981, and things are ugly in Gotham City. Super rats are taking over the streets, savage thugs will mug a stranger for loose change, and the rich are getting richer off the backs of the poor. The parallels to today are not coincidental, they’re the whole point.
Phillips frames his Gotham City as a grungy, skeezy homage to Scorsese’s New York of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” so blatantly that he has to cast Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, Gotham’s top talk show host.
Arthur watches Franklin with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of one day sitting on his couch as a guest once his stand-up comedy career takes off.
“But don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” his mother asks.
Arthur’s not laughing. His notebooks of joke material read more like the deranged scribbles of a psychopath. Onstage at an open mike night, he makes even an empty room squirm with discomfort. He’s alone in his world, his alienation his closet friend. When he comes across a couple of Wall Street-frat boy types and kills them following an altercation gone sideways, he begins, for the first time, to walk with purpose.
Since this is “Joker,” after all, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver do need to find a way to weave Batman into their script, but don’t expect Arthur to take a swan dive into a big vat of acid. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is a billionaire tycoon mounting a campaign to run for Gotham’s mayor and sees himself as a man of the people.
“I’m their only hope,” he says of Gotham’s disenfranchised.
Arthur sees Wayne on the news and believes he’s his long lost father, since Penny once worked for him at Wayne Manor. When Arthur pays a visit to the mansion, he toys with a young Bruce from outside the gate. We later witness what even the most rudimentary of pop culture fans understand to be Batman’s origin story. But, here, it feels like Phillips is checking boxes rather than getting back to the story he wants to tell.
He’s far more interested in Arthur’s mind, and the radicalization of a fringe personality. How and why does one become an agent of evil? In “Joker,” everyone’s to blame, and Phillips sees a society tearing itself apart from the inside as the canvas on which the Joker is painted. The rich are corrupt, the system is rigged, burn it all down. And “Joker” is the match.
It’s heady, incendiary stuff, and it’s surprising how far “Joker” goes, and how much it’s able to get away with. One sequence in particular plays like a horror move, more stomach churning and uncomfortable than anything in the “Saw” movies. But it’s not because it’s graphic or gory. The horror of the situation is all in the viewer’s mind, and Phillips plays it perfectly.
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash?” It’s a question Arthur poses, and “Joker” gives the answer.
Yes, this is the story of the birth of a popular super villain, but “Joker” has much bigger issues on its mind. Chaos is the Joker’s symphony, and it’s “Joker’s,” too. Just try getting it out of your head.