Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Joker is a dark, violent, character study about a troubled man’s descent into becoming a psychotic killer. It is stylistically very similar to Martin Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, both of which were also about men who felt they were ignored by society. Due to a phenomenal performance from Joaquin Phoenix, it is incredibly effective at examining his transformation from a guy barely hanging on to Batman’s most dangerous villain. It is less successful at using its story for social commentary.
There has been concern it would be sympathetic toward its protagonist and possibly incite violence from viewers. I did not find it to be a sympathetic portrait. He is responsible for his own horrific actions. Its attempts to put some of the blame on Gotham’s elite are shallow and come off as trying to give “meaning” without having anything to add to the ongoing conversation about our class divide. However, as a look at a man who sees the world around him burning and decides to stop fighting it, it is disturbing and fascinating.
Arthur Fleck works as a clown for an agency and takes care of his sick mother in a rundown apartment. His employers and coworkers do not respect him and he is constantly being abused and insulted as he makes his way around the city. He is miserable when all he wants to do is make people smile. Then, his reality is ripped away from him, causing him to snap, sending Gotham City even further into chaos.
Joker (116 minutes minus the end credits) would not be nearly what it is without the committed, terrifying, lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix tends to disappear inside his characters and this is no exception. His Arthur is scared, lonely and plagued by a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate situations. The only thing keeping him going is his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. Phoenix wears Arthur’s emotions on his sleeves as he suffers one humiliation after another. He also makes it clear Arthur’s issues are his own. What is going on in the city may make them worse, but they did not create them. He is a damaged man. It is a brilliantly controlled performance really enhancing the differences between how he sees himself and how the world sees him. Believe the hype. Joaquin Phoenix deserves awards for what he does here.
Another key is the way director/producer/cowriter Todd Phillips chose to depict Gotham City. It looks much more like New York City than it has in its previous big screen appearances. It is set in the early 1980s and the production perfectly matches the time period. It is realistically grimy and dangerous, setting the tone. There is nothing cartoonish here. This is an unhappy city full of muted colors. It is no wonder Arthur goes mad; there is no hope here. Phillips has mostly worked in comedy prior to this, but there is no effort to make the Joker’s world actually amusing. This is a scary place of anger and violence. Phillips made sure it remained that way all the way through.
Joker is a superhero movie with no heroes. It is about a man who needs help in a world that does not care. That stuff works extremely well. The subplot showing protests against the rich and Gotham’s inequalities do not work as well. There is a lot of potential there and the contrast between Arthur Fleck and Thomas Wayne is an interesting one. Unfortunately, it sits there awkwardly, as though just including it was meaningful. It pretends to be deep, but uses unsubtle parallels to today as provocation. Being provocative is fine, doing nothing with it is not.
While Joker has its struggles thematically, this is a very well-made movie featuring one of the best performances in the career of an excellent actor. It is a compelling take on Joker’s origin along with that of the city and the hero who will eventually rise up to protect it. It is far from perfect, yet it is undoubtedly the most ambitious movie DC has made since they officially started their cinematic universe six years ago. They were unafraid to follow this story to its inevitable conclusion, no matter how unpleasant. The pre-release controversy may be completely unwarranted (I certainly think it has been wildly overblown), but this is something people will be talking about for the foreseeable future.
3¾ out of 5
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck
Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck
Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin
Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond
Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne
Directed by Todd Phillips
Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver