Joaquin Phoenix boldly reinvents Batman’s cackling arch-nemesis in Todd Phillips’ dark new vision of the supervillain origin story, also starring Robert De Niro.
The clown prince of crime is alive and mentally unwell in Gotham City in Todd Phillips’ grippingly atmospheric supervillain origin story, Joker. While a never-better Joaquin Phoenix paints on the famed maniacal smile with his own blood at one memorable climactic moment of messianic rebirth, what’s most noteworthy about this gritty entry in the DC canon and the lead actor’s sensational performance is the pathos he brings to a pathetically disenfranchised character — just like countless others in a metropolis in which the social chasm separating the haves from the have-nots has become a pit of incendiary rage.
This is very much tethered to the superhero universe and intersects in ways both familiar and not with canonical Batman lore. But Joker could also be a film for audiences who don’t much care about the usual Hollywood comic-strip assembly line. The smart screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver anchors the story in a fiercely divided city with echoes of a contemporary, morally bankrupt America, albeit in the dire economic straits of a decade ago, or the next crisis that’s just around the corner, depending on which financial forecasts you believe.
Built around a credible spiral from lonely outsider to deranged killer, it’s as much a neo-noir psychological character study grounded in urban alienation and styled after Taxi Driver as a rise-of-the-supervillain portrait. It’s arguably the best Batman-adjacent movie since The Dark Knight and Warner should see mighty box office numbers to reflect that. The must-see factor of Phoenix’s riveting performance alone — it’s both unsettling and weirdly affecting — will be significant.
The film is also an obvious homage to another Martin Scorsese title, The King of Comedy, with Robert De Niro playing the host of Live with Murray Franklin, a network late-night show on which it’s the dream of Phoenix’s party clown and aspiring standup comedian, Arthur Fleck, to appear.
Arthur tunes in to the show religiously with his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in their dingy tenement apartment, drifting early on into a fantasy in which he’s plucked out of the studio audience to be embraced on-camera by Murray, stepping in for the father he has never known. Arthur even studies guests on the show and rehearses his entrance and couch banter at home, Rupert Pupkin-style, though it’s clear from the outset that his disillusionment with Murray will turn ugly.
Some brisk scene-setting via opening news reports announces a city-wide emergency as an ongoing strike has left trash piling up, attracting a plague of “super-rats,” while fire-sale signs line the depressed retail streets. Arthur is first seen trying on a smile and then a frown, a tear streaking his white clown makeup before he heads out for work carrying an “Everything Must Go” discount sign for a struggling business. He’s jumped by a bunch of teen hoodlums who steal his sign and give him a beating in an alley.
“Is it just me or is the city getting crazier?” he asks his social worker (Sharon Washington), while requesting additional meds on top of the seven he’s already taking. She agrees these are tough times, people are out of work and struggling.
One key symptom of Arthur’s mental illness is a kind of ha-ha Tourette’s — a medical condition that prompts him to laugh uncontrollably, usually at awkward moments. He carries a card by way of explanation, reading “Forgive My Laughter.” This has contributed to his reputation as a freak at work and pretty much confined his social circle to his mother. She nicknamed him “Happy” from a young age and told him he was “put here to spread joy and laughter.” But Arthur most of the time feels barely alive.
When Randall (Glenn Fleshler), a colleague at the clown-for-hire service where he works, slips him a handgun to protect himself, Arthur starts showing a little more spark. This manifests in the first of several mesmerizing sequences of shirtless dance (this one to “Slap That Bass,” from the Fred Astaire movie Shall We Dance), in which Phoenix’s sinewy body contorts in twisted rapture. The actor’s dramatic weight loss for the role gives him an emaciated, reptilian look. Later those moves will become more elegant — almost balletic as he celebrates his first kills in a grimy subway restroom, and most memorably as he struts down a stone staircase in full Joker finery, to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2).”
The music choices throughout are invigorating and slyly ironic, including a double dose of Sinatra (“That’s Life” and “Send in the Clowns”) and some vintage Cream (“White Room”) as Arthur surveys the mayhem he’s unleashed.
Some of the best moments of Phoenix’s highly physical performance are the transformative interludes in which the increasingly unhinged Arthur applies his clown makeup and later dyes his hair, becoming the Joker.
The protagonist’s simmering psychosis is echoed in the unrest rippling through the city, given gritty, grubby textures and deep, rich hues by cinematographer Lawrence Sher. The look of Mark Friedberg’s production design is very much pre-Giuliani New York, with porn theater marquees advertising titles like Strip Search and Ace in the Hole (not the Billy Wilder film), and the blend of authentic NYC locations with sets is seamless. All this is rendered even darker by the disquietingly melancholy mood of Hildur Gudnadóttir’s brooding orchestral score, which cranks up into thunderous drama as the chaos escalates.
Stitching their original supervillain genesis story neatly into the classic Batman world, Phillips and Silver have prominent moneybags Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) announcing a run for mayor with a promise to set the fractured city back on the right path. Penny Fleck worked for the Wayne family for many years, but her letters appealing for help, especially as she worries more and more about the stability of her son, have gone unanswered.
When Arthur reads one of them, he learns a different history than the one his mother has shared, leading to a pair of uneasy encounters — one with a brusquely dismissive Thomas Wayne at a gala screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times, and a creepily portentous introduction through the iron gates of Wayne Manor to the mayoral candidate’s young son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), in which an unidentified Alfred (Douglas Hodge) intervenes. The murder of Bruce’s parents sticks to the version depicted in the Christopher Nolan movies and elsewhere. But the Joker’s evolution feels freshly minted, partially driven by a now far more personal resentment of the Wayne family.
Given that the world created here is clearly modeled on New York in the not-too-distant past, it will be interesting to see how audiences respond to the alarming depiction of a city under siege. The growing wave of vigilante violence includes a mob assault of two detectives (Shea Whigham and Bill Camp), left in critical condition. And the choice of a trio of cocky young Wall Street jerks as the murder victims that trigger a chain reaction seems a deliberate provocation, especially once tabloid headlines start blaring: “Kill the Rich: A New Movement?”
The more graphic violence is confined to just a small handful of key junctures, though it definitely gets visceral and bloody. But the movie’s chief fascination is the tempestuous soup in Arthur’s head as he steadily disconnects from reality and lurches into an alternate dimension. One example of this is his projection of a relationship with the cool single mom down the hall (Zazie Beetz), whose neighborly elevator chit-chat and eye-rolling acknowledgement of the lunacy gripping Gotham make Arthur believe she’s on his wavelength.
What’s so compelling about the title role, both as written and in Phoenix’s full-throttle, raw performance, is that we’re encouraged to feel sympathy for the Joker even as he’s clearly turning into a homicidal maniac.
An innocent part of him really does just want to follow his mother’s guidance and make people smile. But the city pulls funding for its welfare programs, forcing him to go off his meds; a video clip of him laughing uncontrollably while doing a spot at a standup club gets mocked by his idol Murray on national TV; even his doting mother is perceived to have failed him when he filches her medical records and finds what’s either a disturbing cover-up or fuel for paranoia.
The trajectory of innocence to evil is a tragic one. But watching Arthur exult as the crime wave crescendos is a chilling spectacle illustrating what all the ridicule, abuse and marginalization he’s been subjected to have wrought.
Phillips is a long way from the Hangover trilogy, working confidently in a more ambitious vein akin to what he did as a producer with Bradley Cooper (who’s also on board here) to reimagine A Star is Born for contemporary audiences. With editor Jeff Groth, he keeps the pacing steady and satisfying over two hours, fueling the suspense and modulating the peaks and climactic builds with assurance.
De Niro appears to get a kick out of playing a smarmy character in a film that references two of his iconic screen roles, making Murray a slick showbiz pro but also a morally questionable figure ready to exploit Arthur’s fragility for good TV. And Beetz demonstrates more of the relaxed appeal that makes her such a winning presence on Atlanta. (Her crony from the Donald Glover show, Brian Tyree Henry, makes a brief appearance as an asylum records clerk.)
But this is Phoenix’s film, and he inhabits it with an insanity by turns pitiful and fearsome in an out-there performance that’s no laughing matter. Not to discredit the imaginative vision of the writer-director, his co-scripter and invaluable tech and design teams, but Phoenix is the prime force that makes Joker such a distinctively edgy entry in the Hollywood comics industrial complex.
Production company: Joint Effort
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Marc Maron, Sharon Washington, Brian Tyree Henry
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver, based on the characters from DC
Producers: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Executive producers: Michael E. Uslan, Walter Hamada, Aaron L. Gilbert, Joseph Garner, Richard Baratta, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Lawrence Sher
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Music: Hildur Gudnadóttir
Editor: Jeff Groth
Visual effects supervisor: Edwin Rivera
Casting: Shayna Markowitz
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Rated R, 121 minutes