Is he laughing or crying? It’s a thought sure to race through many heads in Joker when Arthur Fleck begins a weekly therapy session. Stretching tightly wound flesh across overextended muscles, Joaquin Phoenix has tailored his body into something cadaverous by becoming Fleck. Here is a man more living than dead, comprised of skeletal edges and lines that accentuate the yellow rot of his teeth and the emptiness of his grinning stare. In this moment, as Arthur howls laughter, it’s unclear if the guttural sound is a natural spasm or if this is just another moment in a string of endless miseries. And to be honest, it doesn’t really matter to either the movie or the audience.
Neither comedy or tragedy, Joker is an invitation to bear witness to a searing transformation by Phoenix. Whether your first instinct is to revel in the performance or be repulsed by it is of no apparent consequence to writer-director Todd Phillips. No matter what you do, you’re compelled to respond. There is something faintly dishonest about trying to have it both ways, but there is also something admirable. As many a comedian might tell you, it’s all about leaving an impression, and Joker’s has been haunting me for days.
Set in a version of Gotham City far removed from the existence of Batman and the shared universe of DCEU movies, Joker opens on urban sprawl that looks suspiciously like New York City at the height of its late ‘70s and early ‘80s decay. As a radio newscast reports, a garbage strike continues to drag on and the city is now worried about “super rats.” But Arthur Fleck is just concerned with how to make ends meet in his crummy job as a clown-for-hire and children’s entertainer.
Already having endured some vague history of mental illness, Arthur trudges between gigs, therapy, and a decrepit apartment located atop a concrete staircase so steep it’d make Father Merrin weep. It’s there he still lives with his invalid mother (Frances Conroy), a deceptively caring woman who is a little too eager for her son’s company, be it in the bathroom or by her bedside. But it is sitting next to his mother that Arthur finds his solitary joy in life: watching late night TV comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro by way of Johnny Carson).
Arthur’s one dream is to become a stand-up comedian just like Murray. The problem is Arthur isn’t very funny, nor does he find much to smile about, even while attempting a romance with the single mother down the hall (Zazie Beetz). But that all changes the day he reaches his limit and three Wall Street bros pick a fight with him on the subway. Arthur not only hits back; he discovers a killer punchline that the whole city mistakes for a political message. And maybe it is.
The violence in Joker is not frequent, but when it occurs it is vivid—sometimes to the point of excess. A subject devoid of basic moral foundations, the movie’s protagonist is like the wallflower who slowly discovers his groove the more coldblooded his murders become. Arthur is the guy who finds comfort by staring into the void, and there will be much hand-wringing about this film being released in an era where lone wolf mass murderers are a depressingly common feature of American life. However, it would be naïve to suggest a movie’s subject matter is instantly out-of-bounds or somehow an endorsement.
In fact, one of the more appealingly chilling aspects of Joker is that in an era where big budget studio fare has often been reduced to focus group-tested good and evil, heroes and villains, something as bleakly nihilistic as this film could even exist. It obviously has more in common with its Martin Scorsese influences from the era of its setting, especially Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), than it does anything traditionally involving capes. Not only is Batman absent—replaced here by a Trumpian version of Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen)—but so is any attempt to coddle the audience with reassuring platitudes. Joker is a character study about a man shredding an integrity that was only ever feigned, and when it is simply focused on this marginalized sad sack turning that frown upside down, it is eerily hypnotic.
After losing more than 50 pounds to become the Joker, Phoenix casts a spindly, almost grotesque profile. He also has liberated himself from general expectations about his usually taciturn persona and the cinematic baggage associated with a character who has already inspired two indelible performances from the likes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Phoenix is unlike either, essaying a monster who is too introverted to be a fearless showman. He’s a coward, even after he begins donning pancake makeup as a fashion statement instead of a professional necessity. Still, the closer he gets to that big day, the more confident he becomes in his creepy delusions until he’s finally prancing down those concrete steps in the iconic purple suit like a homicidal Eliza Doolittle about to go to the ball. It’s that lone moment where the movie comes close to finding humor in its wannabe comedian.
When just focused on that psychological profile, Joker is electrifying, but the filmmaking around the performance comes up wanting by comparison. Known strictly for his mean-spirited (and similarly nihilistic) Hangover movies, Phillips eschews any sort of humor here while reaching for the most despairing, cynical sensibility every time. This is effective to a point, causing this reviewer to want a shower afterward, but it lacks the point-of-view or pointed commentary of the Scorsese movies it emulates. One of Arthur’s murders is particularly over-the-top, while his grand manifesto in the movie’s finale both interrogates his narcissistic entitlement and half-heartedly attempts to justify it.
Joker wants to have it both ways, which makes it not nearly as transgressive as its idols. But on a certain level, Phillips appears aware of this, addressing his future critics with a denouement that admits an ultimate ambivalence about his own movie’s inherent nastiness. Given the picture operates on the trajectory of a tragedy with a predestined end, the refusal for true self-analysis holds it back from the greatness it so convincingly flirts with. But its open perversity should not be seen as something threatening, particularly when it’s this engrossing.