Equal parts fascinating and disturbing, Joker crafts a chillingly plausible origin story for The Clown Prince of Crime.
In 1981, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown-for-hire in Gotham City. He lives with and cares for his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and idolizes late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro) while pursuing a career in stand-up comedy. Injustices pile onto Arthur: he loses his job and access to medication from Social Services, and is incessantly bullied by the city’s amoral denizens. Even the companionship of a single mother in his building (Zazie Beetz) can’t keep Arthur from teetering closer and closer to the point of a breakdown. Meanwhile, Gotham City deteriorates, creating a void at the top for Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Bruce Cullen) and at the bottom for a man like Arthur.
Todd Phillips may seem like an atypical choice to direct Joker, and perhaps he is. But he acquits himself admirably, in large part because his directorial style here isn’t really his own. From the vintage Warner Bros. opening logos to the darkly ironic final shot, Phillips is emulating the masters of the 1970s auteur movement. The main inspiration is clearly Martin Scorsese, whose films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are heavily referenced in ways both subtle and overt. But Phillips has clearly been watching the works of Brian de Palma (one of whose pictures is referenced by name) and even French New Wave, too.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism — if you’re gonna borrow from anyone, borrow from the best — but there’s little here that seems organically “Phillips.” Then again, even his last film (the underrated War Dogs) borrowed liberally from Scorsese’s gangster oeuvre. But regardless of whether you want to hold Phillips’ influences against him or not, the approach works. A scene in which Fleck dances by himself in a public bathroom is simultaneously skin-crawlingly disturbing and beautifully poetic in equal measure. There’s never been a scene like this in a comic book movie before.
Present in just about every scene and nearly every shot, Phoenix dominates the film. Emaciated and maniacal, Phoenix is brutal in all the best ways. He sells Arthur as both a decent man trying his best, but one who could snap at just the right (or wrong) moments. His bulging eyes, creased face, and gaunt physique are a map of all the abuse and trauma Arthur has suffered throughout his life. Some may be tempted to say that Phoenix covered this ground before in Paul Thomas Anderson’s excellent The Master (for which Phoenix should’ve won the Academy Award), but his Joker is different, darker, more disconcerting. A performance like this merits serious Oscar consideration, and may well end up victorious.
It’s difficult and, frankly, pointless to compare Phoenix to previous Jokers like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. These are distinct performances with their own psychologies, motivations (or lack thereof), and ultimate purposes in what they’re trying illuminate about Batman, Gotham City, or humanity as a whole. Although there’s no Batman in Joker, the film adds an interesting new layer to the eternal question about Batman and his arch-nemesis: can one exist without the other? And as a modern parable about mental illness and the decay of modern society, Joker has plenty of say, even if it leaves judgment to its audience.
Also worthy of serious Academy Award consideration are the cinematography by Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (HBO’s “Chernobyl”). Picture and Adapted Screenplay could be in play, along with below-the-line superlatives like Production Design and Costume Design. Its ultimate awards fate will depend on how well Hollywood can stomach such a depraved and squeamish viewing experience. This is powerful work that builds steadily to a violent, palpably tense finale. Easily one of the best films of the year, Joker is also undoubtedly one of the best comic book films ever made.