“Joker”, which tells the origin story of one of the most unhinged comic book villains ever, left me feeling conflicted. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant and the film is undeniably fascinating, but the violence is unsettling and leans dangerously close to being irresponsible. Previously “The Dark Knight” and 1989’s “Batman” allowed fine actors like Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson to showcase the character’s sadistic villainy in smart and unforgettable ways. This film puts him front and center of the narrative – making him the hero of his own story – as it deep dives into his psyche to understand what could possibly push an ordinary man to commit acts of such extraordinary cruelty and violence.
Arthur Fleck is an awkward, lonely guy who lives in a rundown apartment with his sick mother. He works as a clown-for-hire, holding up signage on street corners, but it’s a miserable existence in a city itself struck by hard times. Director Todd Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher create an evocative portrait of a bleak world; a cityscape robbed of color and joy. Arthur’s life is a series of humiliations, unwarranted attacks, and all manner of rejections. Frequently, when it gets too much to bear, he says things like: “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore”, and Joaquin Phoenix delivers these lines with palpable hurt and vulnerability. Eventually Arthur snaps.
Despite its roots in comic book mythology, “Joker” is closer in tone to “Taxi Driver” than anything from the Marvel or DC canon. Arthur’s internalized rage, his contempt for this immoral city, his descent into despair, settling on violence as a solution…you could well be speaking of Travis Bickle. There are nods also to another Scorsese film “The King of Comedy”, which makes Robert De Niro’s casting in this film as a talk show host who Arthur is obsessed with a stroke of meta genius.
Which brings us to the violence. The film is steeped in the sort of shocking, explosive brutality that makes you flinch each time its committed. A scene in which Arthur turns on a visitor who stops by at his home is especially horrific, but ends on a comical note. The build up to the actual violence is so long drawn and intense that it distinctly feels as if the makers are reveling in your discomfort.
Through all this the film is powered by a creepy, delicious, slow-burning performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a man falling deeper and deeper into the abyss within his brain as soon as he stops taking his medication. His maniacal laugh (I’ll leave you to discover the why and how of it), his mood swings, and especially his dancing all contribute to his overall construction of this unpredictable, frequently unpleasant, but consistently watchable character.
“Joker” is solid in both its craft and storytelling. But the film made me ponder what message it may be sending out – that violence is an accepted solution for these hopeless, cynical times..? I’m not sure that’s very responsible. But I’ll leave you to decide what you draw from it.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for “Joker”.
Rating: 3.5 / 5