Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) can’t catch a break. He spends his days dressed as a clown, spinning signs for local businesses. Things go south fast when a gang of hoodlums jump Arthur in broad daylight, and they smash his sign before handing him a helping of whoop-ass. Making matters worse, his boss chews him out for losing the sign. And when Arthur decides to carry a gun for protection, it slips out at the worst possible moment, costing him his job.
Arthur has bigger ambitions, though; he dreams of becoming a famous stand-up comedian like his idol, TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But stand-up isn’t in the cards. The universe, it seems, has bigger ambitions for perennial sad-sack, Arthur Fleck.
But it’s not only Arthur who has it bad in Gotham City circa 1981. Like a punch-drunk boxer clinging to the ropes, Gotham City is on its last legs. A garbage strike has lead to people piling Shaq-sized heaps of trash along the streets, and newscasts report giant super rats are running rampant. And new municipal budget cuts mean Arthur must stop visiting his social worker. Tensions keep rising between Gothamite’s and financial elites, and something is about to blow.
Joker, from director Todd Phillips, tells the origin story of Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime. And in case you missed that R-rating on the poster, Joker is one dark and twisted tale. Arthur Fleck evolves from butt of the joke to future criminal mastermind, The Joker. And the film is as bleak, violent, and disturbing as one expects from a story about a psychopathic murderer in clown makeup.
Heading into Joker, you must ask yourself what you want out of a comic book movie. This may sound like hyperbole, but I can’t say it any clearer: Joker is unlike any comic book movie that came before it. This isn’t a movie with nods to Batman, Harley Quinn, and The Justice League. This story takes place in its own pocket universe where a man calling himself Joker is about to make his grand debut. The closest proximity is James Mangold’s edgy, R-rated kind of/sort of standalone X-Men movie, Logan.
If you watch Joker expecting a whiz-bang comic book movie full of one-liners, action sequences, and superhero cameos you’ll be disappointed. Joker isn’t about the plot so much as creating a feeling. Phillips wants viewers to lose themselves in the movie’s unnerving vibes. This film goes to some dark places that casual comic book fans won’t be ready for. Think of this picture as what happens if Adam Sandler’s Punch Drunk Love character Barry Egan went off the deep end. Actually, Arthur Fleck is what happens if Barry Egan had no support system.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance for the ages. This film doesn’t even feature any meaningful supporting characters. Sure, people come and go; Frances Conroy as Arthur’s sickly mother; Zazie Beetz as a friendly neighbour; and De Niro as a Johnny Carson-like talk show host. But they barely register whenever Phoenix is on screen. Joker is mostly a one-man show.
So much of the film consists of closeups of Phoenix’s face and watching him perform is nothing short of mesmerizing. It’s incredible how he keeps forming new facial expressions all the way through. But it’s more than his silly-putty facial contortions that keep you hooked. Phoenix inhabits the character within his every strand of DNA and the performance blossoms once he ultimately becomes the Joker. Once Arthur “self-actualizes,” there is a spring to his every step and a looseness to how he swings his limbs. Phoenix saunters around like a man who had the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders. And of course, there’s the iconic laugh which bursts out in manic fits. It’s all deliciously villainous.
I wasn’t prepared for how gorgeous this movie looks. Joker is visual poetry; a film that speaks volumes without saying a word. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher creates a nicotine-stained vision of 1981 that seems so real that I could reach out and touch it. I loved watching neon bodega lights cast their red and green glow on the wet pavement. And Gotham’s grimy subway system looked as authentic as documentary footage. I could watch this stunning-looking film with the sound off. But I wouldn’t want to thanks to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s grandiose score, which at times, resonates like a horror movie.
Joker is about a lunatic gaining infamy, sure. But this film is really about a movement. It’s about what happens to people who fall through the cracks. It’s about a society that goes nuclear when two warring factions can’t find common ground. And it’s about a class of people who “in their desperation turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
Watching Joker, I couldn’t help but think of the legion of frustrated young men who will cling to this movie as an affirmation. The parallels between Arthur Fleck and mass-shooter culture left my stomach in knots. But that’s a another conversation for another day, worthy of its own feature.
Martin Scorsese’s 1982 classic, The King of Comedy (which had a massive influence on this film), was eerily prescient about the day when narcissists would demand their 15-minutes of fame. Inversely, Phillips takes us back to 1981 to tells a story that feels ripped from today’s headlines. Joker is at once a blunt political statement, an adrenaline shot to the superhero genre, and a love letter to classic crime flicks.
NOTE: This review was originally published during TIFF 2019.