“Do I look like the kind of clown that can start a movement?”
Temper your effusive praise of Todd Phillips’ Joker for a moment and ponder what its $1 billion box office take (and counting) might have to say about the world in which we live and your place as an audience member within it. “The times maketh the man,” goes the wise, old, unattributable quote. Or did I mean to say, “the clothes”? For The Joker, maniacal ancient scourge of Gotham City, both catalysts apply. Every new wave of filmgoers seems to get the Joker it deserves somehow, be they glib, if sinister, inveterate pranksters in the animated mold of Mark Hamill or, applying a slightly sliding scale, Cesar Romero, ugly, enigmatic loose cannons as in the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal, or, to an obnoxiously lesser degree, whatever the trashy nu-metal hell Jared Leto was trying to accomplish, or slick, cruel, strutting peacocks like Jack Nicholson’s 1989 paradigm shifter. No matter how committed or complete the performance, in the end they are still just especially vivid aspects of an unknowable greater whole. Before finally bowing to inferred societal pressure to see Phillips’ cinematic hot take, already a month and a half into its unlikely but instructive reign, I wasn’t aware that a brand new approach to this character, the implacable agent of chaos who, across countless comic pages and a staggering succession of screens big and small, has been so many things to so many people beyond merely Batman’s foil, was strictly necessary. Now that it’s over, I’m still not entirely convinced, though it did give me lots to consider.
You don’t need me, as an undistinguished, unqualified cultural or political critic*, to parrot dire warnings that the world outside our windows, the one oozing out of our various devices and poisoning us anew with its invective a little more each minute/hour/day, is in alarming, perhaps irreversible peril. Just pay attention. It’s still a beautiful world, or it can be, as evidenced by all the pictures of your (and my) latest vacation, or of your kids playing in the park, going trick-or-treating, seeing the ocean for the first time, etc. It is also a world of deep institutional corruption and public apathy, in which sympathy, empathy, even basic humanity, seems to be in increasingly shorter supply, understanding isn’t half as important as winning, and differences of any kind are instinctively interpreted as evidence of threat or weakness and dealt with accordingly. I melt into the chorus blaming the prevalence of social media as a contributing factor to these ills, even as I grudgingly recognize it might have pointed you towards this review (if so, thanks for your support). Into this toxic environment – explicitly theorized as a product of this environment – Phillips places his Joker, the infamous funhouse mirror reflection made manifest, except in this case the funhouse is long boarded over and abandoned before the movie has begun, its interior glasswares all demolished, and only this sad, skeletal man remains, crumpled in a corner, out of the way but still all too visible, first chuckling and then cackling to himself as curious onlookers warily approach.
*Or, sadly, just as qualified as any other dedicated internet consumer, I should say.
Regardless of how much of the finished Joker may technically exist within the confines of the admittedly bold, nonconformist screenplay co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, Joaquin Phoenix, with his exposed nerve of a performance, is its true author. Proto-Joker Arthur Fleck is Phoenix’s invention in total – acting from his trembling insides out in a sharp reversal of traditional approaches to the role** – and the degree to which the film fails or succeeds rests wholly upon his disconcertingly bony shoulders. The three-time Oscar nominee has always been capable of extraordinary feats of acting – see his performances as damaged, desperate seekers in Her and The Master respectively – but this is a full step beyond, off the gangplank and into the inky abyss below. Joker is, on the whole, a singularly nervy enterprise in the annals of recent cinema, which has largely been defined by shiny, market-driven timidity otherwise, by turns jittery and defiant, primal and piteous, a bloodspattered, grease-painted treatise on identity that steadfastly refuses to choose one until its own climactic moments, instead returning time and again to two unsettling, intertwined thesis questions: At what point might your repeated, awful, entitled behavior actually justify your death…and beyond what point are the accumulated indignities visited upon you sufficient to make you act upon the unthinkable? Are you Arthur Fleck, in other words, or are you the asshole repeatedly kicking him? There is no third path in this scenario. Phillips postulates that you want to be Arthur Fleck, or that you will at least by the end, even though nobody in his or her right mind would choose his station or trajectory willingly.
**Clown makeup remains among the very most potent methods available to lose one’s identity in a single stroke and, almost without even trying, supplant it with something exponentially creepier and more evocative. Killer clowns almost never seem to get the memo to underplay.
We first encounter Fleck gazing into a mirror in the best lit corner by default of a grungy tenement back room, studiously applying clown makeup before pausing, unsatisfied, to apply physical reinforcement to his inadequate natural smile. He appears soon after as a clown with some grace and apparent native facility, twirling an oversized wooden sign outside a small business and blissfully dancing as if no one is watching. When a pack of young hoods steal the sign and, following an exhausting multi-block pursuit through midtown Gotham, attack him in an alleyway, Arthur is left a beaten mess. He slinks home to a life caring for his confused mother and nursing recurring fantasies of stealing the spotlight on his favorite talk show, hosted by a Joe Franklin-esque old school New York curmudgeon played by Robert DeNiro. The next day he is berated by his boss, who doesn’t buy the mugging story and thinks he pocketed the sign for petty personal gain, later even firing him for not unjustified reasons. Who would mug a clown, after all? Through all of Arthur’s travails, his series of fleeting ups and comprehensive downs, it’s difficult to ever see Joker through the prism of the standard-issue DC and MCU blockbusters whose coattails it so clearly rode to a record opening weekend and the public’s insatiable interest, since in reality it is a grungy, obsessive, depressive character study in the mode of breakthrough Scorsese and lacking all but the most baseline superhero accoutrements. As an unflinching if fast forward portrait of mental illness in its full flower, Joker is reliably compelling and occasionally difficult to watch. As an authentic supervillain origin story, it has problems.
Arthur Fleck is, indeed, a very sick man, and the commitment to observing him through the lens of Phoenix’s peerlessly expressive face – unconditioned except through repeated exposure to outside indifference and spite, unadorned except by non-specific bruises and the clown mask he begins to internalize as an alter-ego – is the only reason the movie succeeds, let alone exists. And that laugh; oh, that incessant, dissociative laugh. Fleck knows he is ill, though to what extent is debatable, and does his best with it, imagining life as a stand-up comedian and unironic spreader of joy despite the fundamental disconnect between how the world sees him and how he sees himself, never quite comprehending why he should engender such disdain and hostility from the people he encounters. On some level, he is a lab rat coming to uncertain terms with a lifetime of being poked and ogled by impolite society. The signal moment in Fleck’s tortuous transformation from professional victim to amatuer victimizer occurs one night on the subway, when he is accosted by three stereotypical Wall Street vermin on their way uptown from last call. Hostilities escalate in the usual way, right up to the point where, lying in a bloody heap, Fleck remembers he has a handgun in his pocket. The painted assailant disappears into the crowd and an urban legend is born overnight. Seething class resentments in Gotham are thrown into stark relief in subsequent days, made outsize through media scrutiny, and the clown “mask” Arthur wasn’t actually wearing nevertheless becomes an unlikely symbol of a vitriolic proletariat, spurring citywide revolt. Arthur is largely oblivious to his growing fame as he fights only to survive, and steady his day-to-day. Phoenix never takes shortcuts with the journey, even if Phillips occasionally does.
It’s not as accurate to say that Joker has drawn comparison to the bloodsoaked urban milieu so prominent in 1970s psychodrama as it has actively invited such comparisons. Gothamites, and, one presumes, New Yorkers, hate questioning their own worth as much they hate fearing for their safety, and instinctively love the idea of someone who stands any status quo on its head – even by accident, even if they have no context or minimal grasp of the greater story. Did that story, even in service to Phoenix’s astonishing performance, need to be told? Batman has arguably the most durable and fascinating origin in modern literature, having inspired not merely vivid, often non-sequitur flashbacks in multiple blockbusters but an entire movie of its own and a full, five-season television series on top of that. The Joker is and already was every bit his match and more, whether or not we knew where he came from. Should we care? Joker breaks sharply with existing cinematic precedent as concerns the Clown Prince of Crime by, first, being an origin story at all – Nicholson’s Joker, you’ll remember, was granted an arbitrary onscreen genesis, while Ledger’s incarnation teased multiple, divergent beginnings as part of his ongoing campaign of cheeky psychological warfare, and the other properties, perhaps wisely, stayed silent – but, more crucially, underlining exactly how unwell Arthur Fleck is. Does the fact that the title says Joker automatically make it more palatable to a mass audience than, say, the original Death Wish? Could Arthur Fleck ever truly mirror the horrific personal descent of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle*** to the degree Phillips surely envisions for him, given that we know his secret identity from the first frame?
***Phillips makes his persistent Scorsese allusions most explicit through the presence of the master’s own celebrated pre-DiCaprian muse, Robert DeNiro. Like the rest of the cast, DeNiro, as the talk show host with whom Arthur becomes fatefully entangled, isn’t given much to do here, and, knowing it’s Phoenix’s show, is too professional to overextend himself. Still, it’s difficult to look at him with so much thematic thickness hanging in the air and not see shades of the mohawked Bickle psyching himself up before his climactic rampage, or, more to the point, Rupert Pupkin, the pitiful aspiring stand-up who kidnaps Johnny Carson figure Jerry Lewis in Scorsese’s underseen, massively influential “The King of Comedy”. Inspiration is fine, and even better when it comes from the best, but without Phoenix redirecting gravity throughout this film’s every frame, the overt homage on display might leave a more bitter taste.
Any detectable evidence to the contrary, I promise you I’m not here to mince words. So, is Joker worth seeing? Absolutely, assuming you can stomach it – I’ve noticed a typed disclaimer taped to the box office window of my local AMC theater warning potential, presumably young, patrons and their perhaps overly permissive guardians that this isn’t a “typical” superhero movie of the sort they’ve no doubt become conditioned to in recent years – but only, and I mean only, because of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck. Nothing else matters here, because, honestly, nothing else really exists. As a surprisingly palatable, even objectively strong example of the outlier niche genre “Villain Origin Story”, I could damn Joker with the faint praise that comes along with sitting atop a heap that also contains the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Rob Zombie’s Halloween, and Hannibal Rising, but I think it’s more of a natural piece with recent tour-de-force acting exhibitions that overwhelmed their surrounding films, like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, or Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Similarly, it seems almost a foregone conclusion at this point that Phoenix will take home his first Academy Award in four attempts playing the same role for which Heath Ledger won posthumously, and with good reason. He’s a negative space in human form that radiates even when standing still, almost like a hole visibly burning through the film stock. I wish the story was more worthy of him. There’s nothing the least bit glamorous about Joker’s rise here, which seems as much happenstance as serendipity in the final analysis, but Arthur will certainly take it. I buy him as a tragedy, because of Phoenix, and I buy him as a cautionary tale. Much more than I buy him as a villain. Perhaps that’s a job for the sequel.