Take this as you will: Todd Phillips’ Joker is exactly the kind of movie the Clown Prince of Crime would have wanted. Vicious, dangerous, transcendent, it’s the boldest and most shattering addition to the comic cinema canon since The Dark Knight. But even so, this slow burn film has forged its own path on the outskirts of blockbuster creativity, not only reinventing one of entertainment’s most iconic villains, but our conception – and hopefully, a whole string of future filmmakers’ notions – of the comic book genre itself.
Muck and junk flood the streets of Gotham City. Travis Bickle longed for the day the rain would wash the streets clean of such filth, and in 1989’s Do the Right Thing, set and released at the tail end of the decade this film’s events take place, the overbearing heat did its part in igniting a block-contained, yet thunderous rebellion. In that spirit, the piling heaps of garbage here introduce a similar tension, this time between the rich, who are only getting richer, and the poor, who are only getting poorer. And lying on the ground between overflowing bins and collection of strewn black bags is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), in all of his irrelevant glory.
Arthur is one of life’s outsiders, socially and societally aborted. Living in a cramped apartment with his ailing mother (an eerily magnificent Frances Conroy), he works as a call clown during the day, and on his stand-up routine during the night. His hope beneath the surface in bringing happiness to others is that he could possibly stow some for himself one day. But as the world constantly passes him by, only stopping to harass, beat, or dismiss him – the social worker who provides minimal consultation and maximum medication is being defunded – his quest for joy sinks farther and farther into the hopeless abyss his mind becomes.
This foundation provides more backstory for the character than in perhaps any work from the 80 years since his conception. Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile) take minuscule inspiration from the DC comics, instead offering their own origin story, one whose grim, reality-based declination provides the film with harrowing political commentary. This is not so much a movie about the man that became the Joker as it is about the world that allowed the Joker to happen.
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As Arthur, Phoenix is utterly phenomenal. Having lost an egregious amount of weight for the part, with protruding ribs and shoulder blades that look ready to burst at the seams, he strips his body down to its emotional core. And as an agent of chaos, liberated by its tumultuous effects, the spectacle of observing Arthur test out his newfound freedoms – be it in a roadside bathroom or a grand set of outdoor stairs, he allows his body to flow and flair around as the agony slowly pours out of him – is among the most hauntingly memorable images of the year.
For all two hours of Joker, you’re aware of how heavily influenced Phillips and company were by the loner-lunatic pieces of Martin Scorsese, including Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy –the gratuitously intentional casting of Robert De Niro as late night talk show host Murray Franklin doesn’t lend the film any subtlety. But while Phoenix carries the same degree of inner torture and outer aggression as De Niro brought to his characters in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Phillips, as a veteran filmmaker, tends to rely too heavily on his idols.
Within that setup, however, the Hangover director manages to create another dazzling and contemporary one-psycho show, one that rings especially true in an age of mass shooters and bargain-less politics.
To some, these comparisons – especially when translated into the gritty, bloody revolts that make up the film’s climax – may compromise any possibility of enjoyment. Joker is, without a doubt, an incendiary project, designed to propel and project reaction. What we see, without context, is a terrorist: a man whose gruesome agenda is so objectless, it greatly, if not entirely reduces our perception of humanity. However, a lack of context is impossible here, and makes siding with this creep clown not only the more likely option, but the effortless one as well.
A macabre masterpiece, Joker’s social relevance may be disputed for years, but the film and its star may never be denied the grandeur of their cinematic revolution.