At this point, it feels like any actor who wants to play the Joker—arguably the most famous comic book villain in history—can take a crack at him. At some point in the not-to-distant future, it may become as common to play Joker as it is for an actor to dive into Hamlet or Jesus or, let’s be honest, Batman. But the result so far has been an array of portrayals that have run the spectrum from cartoonish to anarchic lynchpin. Although I don’t think it’s possible for me to ever consider any portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime more devastating than Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight (although Cameron Monaghan’s work on the “Gotham” series was also quite remarkable), the more humanized version that Joaquin Phoenix gives us in Joker is extraordinary for different reasons.
Let’s first get this out of the way: Joker is not the type of film that is inherently dangerous, and I can’t believe I have to say it. It absolutely does not glorify or excuse terrible behavior, but what it does is remind us is that monsters are not born, they are made. Screenwriters Todd Phillips (who also directed) and Scott Silver give us their version of Joker in the form of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), who is a depressive oddball from way back. Through the course of the film, we discover that he was abused as a child (something he seems to have blocked out as an adult), and in different ways, he was abused as an adult by the world around him. Again, the film isn’t giving Arthur’s terrible behavior a pass or an excuse, but at the same time, it’s important to know the elements that blended together to make the perfect storm of evil.
Arthur seems harmless enough in the beginning. Set in the early 1980s, Joker gives us a portrait of an underweight party clown with a slightly dated wardrobe, an unhealthy pallor, and an affliction that makes him burst out laughing at the most inappropriate moments. It sounds funny, but he laughs so hard at times, he almost chokes or throws up—it’s meant to seem painful to Arthur, and he clearly isn’t happy even when he’s giggling maniacally. Phoenix portrays Arthur as a man able to care for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), who is obsessed with writing letters to the richest man in town, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), whom she used to work for years earlier and believes will help her and her son if he only know what squalor they lived in in Gotham City.
Arthur suffers one indignity after another—he’s beaten up on the job and he’s berated by his boss at the clown talent agency. He finds solace in a few places, however. He befriends Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a young single mom who lives down the hall with her daughter, and it seems like they hit it off. He has his passion for becoming a stand-up comic, and although we only see a bit of his overly rehearsed routine, we can tell that’s not going particularly well. He’s also obsessed with TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and fantasizes about his comedy career leading to a guest spot on the program—another sad delusion added to the already long list that Arthur carries with him everywhere.
Even if you ultimately loathe Joker, it’s difficult for me to believe that you can’t find some value in the film, whether it’s Phoenix’s superbly unnerving performance or the way Phillips and his team capture the gritty quality of Gotham City on the brink of collapse—from crime, garbage strikes, the presence of something known as “super rats,” and so on. But then things escalate in large part due to a terrible choice Arthur makes when he is harassed by three drunk Wall Street (or Gotham’s equivalent) dude-bros on the subway. What he does changes everything, and the citizens of Gotham (who aren’t millionaires) take notice. What’s worse, they seem inspired by it, and the common people’s attitude toward the rich turns ugly.
Here is something else Joker isn’t: a Martin Scorsese movie. Yes, there are elements of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (right down to Arthur’s trademark red suit) that certainly inform what Phillips is doing, but he’s hardly the first filmmaker to lift from Scorsese, and the overall look and tone of the movie benefit from the connection. It’s as fascinating to see how he borrows from these two key works as it is to see how he deviates from them.
It’s been reported that Phoenix lost around 50 lbs. to play this part, and what that has done to his body is shocking and essential to the character. When Arthur commits his first act of violence, he’s sure he’s going to suffer paralyzing guilt, but after a time, he realizes that he enjoyed the satisfaction of bloodshed and does a strange, celebratory dance that seems to practically push his bones through his skin as he contorts himself in this ballet of blood. The weight loss also makes Phoenix’s face more pliable, more capable of expressions that seem ridiculously sinister, even when that isn’t his intention.
My biggest issues with the film have nothing to do with its messages or the impact the film may have on the world at large. Without giving anything away, I was most disappointed with the last 20 minutes or so of Joker, as Arthur makes his final transformation into a true villain. It’s as if from the moment he decides that being bad is his true calling, the story loses value. Up to that point, Arthur has been fighting his demons. He goes to a psychiatrist, takes meds, and generally tries to better the world though humor. But as he begins to formulate the idea that that isn’t his purpose on Earth, the journey becomes far less interesting, and the film seems more about the spectacle and a splashy ending than any type of morality lesson. It’s less about being a cautionary tale and more about being a traditional origin story.
I’m impressed that Todd Phillips has gone from The Hangover and War Dogs to something far more layered and rich, even if a great deal of that comes from Phoenix’s performance. Still, there’s no getting around that this stand-alone effort was Phillips’ brainchild, and he was intent on keeping his Joker away from men in bat suits (which is not to say Bruce Wayne doesn’t make an appearance). Also popping in for smaller supporting roles are the likes of Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Brian Tyree Henry, and Marc Maron, some of whom barely register. But before anyone cries about them being wasted, keep in mind, they wanted to be in this movie. I doubt very much these characters started out bigger and got cut; these are the roles they signed up to play, and they take what could have been throwaway characters and give them a little polish.
De Niro may not be the greatest chat show host, but he’s actually pretty amusing as a veteran show-biz douche who gets a hold of a tape of Arthur’s stand-up routine, makes fun of him relentlessly on TV, and then is surprised when Arthur isn’t too happy about it. Joker is both a deeply flawed work as well as a mostly believable portrait of a man pushed beyond his limits into something terrible. Arthur Fleck simply didn’t have the mechanisms that many of us do to cope, and he had no choice but to give into darker forces in his brain.
As I said, the movie doesn’t make excuses; it simply lays out this life in decline and dares us to watch how it turns out. It may be too much for some, and that’s part of the point, I believe. The only thing I ask is that you judge it after you see it and not before; that’s basically Rule #1 in film criticism…and moviegoing in general.
Did you enjoy this post? We’d love to hear what you think of our work; take our reader survey here. Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!