Joaquin Phoenix makes his mark as maestro of madness in ferocious new backstory saga.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro & Zazie Beets
Directed by Todd Phillips
One of the top villains in the kingdom of the comics finally gets his solo spot in this dark spin on the backstory of the character who will eventually become—as we all know—Batman’s mortal enemy.
Various other actors have memorably played the Joker, including Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and (on TV) Cesar Romero. But those were all supporting roles, and Joaquin Phoenix breaks new ground as the star of director Todd Phillips’ twistedly artful urban nightmare about the genesis story of Arthur Fleck, whose mangled past and tortured present combine, collide and combust into something ferocious, ghoulish and terrifying.
When we meet Fleck, he’s working as a rent-a-clown in the DC Comics hub of Gotham City in the early 1980s. The place is a cesspool, in more ways than one; a strike by garbage workers has left the streets strewn with trash and overrun by rats, and the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots has created an even greater strain on the roiling, restless underclass.
We can tell the deck is stacked against Fleck from the get-go; he’s a mentally unstable, basket-case loser and outsider who lives with his frail mother (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under and American Horror Story) in a dingy apartment. He’s prone to outbursts of inappropriate laughter, uncontrollable spasms of jarring, hyena-like cackles. He carries a laminated card that explains, “I Have a Condition.” It doesn’t always help.
Arthur gets bullied, beat down and beat up. Then he finds out a budget slash is axing his social-services safety net, and he won’t receive any more medicine to keep the demons in his head at bay. He gets fired from his clowning job. Can things get any worse?
“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks his social caseworker (Sharon Washington).
It definitely gets crazier in Joker, as Arthur gets a handgun, bullets fly, bodies in a subway car fall, and Gotham’s anonymous “Killer Clown” becomes a vigilante hero, an icon of a surging, stick-it-to-the-rich rebellion. Rioters in the streets begin wearing clown masks.
One of the richest is wealthy industrialist and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, who played Gerald Kindt on TV’s True Detective).He’s also the father of young Bruce, who’ll grow up to become you know Bat-who. Zazie Beetz (Emmy-nominated for her role as Van Keefer on the FX drama Atlanta) plays Fleck’s neighbor, Sophie, a single mom who seems to understand him—at least for a while.
But the whole of the movie revolves around a live TV show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a Johnny Carson-like late-night character who broadcasts every evening from downtown Gotham City. Fleck, who desperately wants to become a stand-up comedian, feeds his delusion by fantasizing of an appearance on the program.
In a bizarre twist that sets up the movie’s explosively violent climax, his fantasy becomes a reality.
Director Phillips’ previous films include the comedies Road Trip, Old School and the Hangover trilogy, all of which plumbed the “hilarity” of grown men behaving badly as they try to recapture the frivolities and frolics of youth. Joker is a much darker, much more unsettling descent into the maelstrom of bad behavior. There aren’t any real laughs in this movie about a clown who would become one of pop culture’s all-time favorite bad guys. And mental illness, as we know, is no laughing matter.
But Joaquin Phoenix is no joke as the Joker. The actor has always immersed himself in his roles, whether he’s playing a toady Roman emperor (Gladiator), country superstar Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or a lonely guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (Her). He reportedly lost some 50 pounds to play Arthur Fleck, and the extreme transformation adds to the scariness of his intense, grueling performance. His character is an emaciated time bomb that often looks like an angel of death seemingly living on cigarettes, fantasy and deprivation instead of food.
Cinema lovers will notice the movie’s nods to its inspirations, particularly Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and there’s a pivotal scene in a theater showing a revival of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times—in which Chaplin’s character, a factory worker struggling in the “modern” industrial society, is believed to go mad and gets committed to a mental hospital.
Joker brings up plenty of things to think about—not the least of which are the warnings that were issued before it was even released about the possible violence it might unleash. Its narrative is, after all, hauntingly similar to other, real-world episodes in which disenfranchised white men have gone on to tragic shooting sprees. And it reminds us how easily someone—anyone—can slip through the cracks of an overburdened system and become lost…or worse.
But mostly it reminds us how, sometimes, a great actor finds a great role and just, well, kills it. In Joker, Phoenix makes his mark as a severely damaged man who becomes an insane monster, a maestro of madness who sinks to the bottom of society but moves to the top tier of the DC Villains Hall of Fame. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons them and treats them like trash?” he asks. “You get what you f—in’ deserve.”
And you get a movie like Joker. Send in the clowns—no, don’t bother, they’re here.
In theaters Friday, Oct. 4