Joaquin Phoenix turns in a stellar, script-flipping performance in 'Joker.'
Release Date: October 4, 2019
MPAA Rating: R
A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriters: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Producers: Bradley Cooper. Todd Phillips, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck), Robert De Niro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne), Shea Whigham (Detective Burke), Bill Camp (Detective Garrity), Glenn Fleshler (Randall), Leigh Gill (Gary)
Editor: Jeff Groth
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
Production Designer: Mark Friedberg
Casting Director: Shayna Markowitz
Music Score: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Superhero movies have been all the rage for the past couple of decades (if not longer). But what about the supervillains? Writer/director Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs) has the answer. Or, at least, he has AN answer. And that is Joker.
Joker is about a young man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix from You Were Never Really Here and The Sisters Brothers) who has dreams of being a stand-up comedian and appearing on the late-night talk show of host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro from The Comedian and Joy). Unfortunately for Arthur, he suffers from a condition which makes him laugh at inappropriate times, so the only job he can procure is that of a clown-for-hire. Arthur also lives in a Gotham City, which is on the edge of turmoil and overridden with crime, with rich politicians constantly stepping on the downtrodden lower-class workers. As Arthur’s mind slips further into his violent insanity, he becomes the symbol of rebellion that the city desperately needs.
There have been several origin stories for the Joker character over the years, ranging from the typical criminal-who-fell-into-a-vat-of-chemicals to him actually being a computer virus. The character’s unreliable narration has made any and all of them believable, and that’s what Todd Phillips leans into with Joker. Along with co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), Phillips presents a version of The Joker that has never been seen before. It’s a violent and disturbing vision of the master criminal, but it’s also a sympathetic one. Arthur has been let down by the system, so his mental illness has no choice but to progress and fester.
The craziest aspect of Joker is how Phillips is able to take one of the most notorious villains in pop culture history and twist him into the hero. When billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen from The Shallows) – a name that should be familiar to Batman fans – announces his campaign to run for Mayor of Gotham City, he becomes almost a Trumpian figure. Wayne – and everything he represents – becomes the antagonist of the movie, and Arthur’s insane laughing clown, as the polar opposite of Wayne, is turned into the protagonist. Of course, nothing Arthur does is heroic or noble, but Phillips portrays him as a victim himself, a symbol of the poor and oppressed people of Gotham City. The perfect anti-hero.
It’s significant that Robert De Niro appears in Joker, because the movie has a serious The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver vibe to it. Only this time, De Niro’s character is on the outside looking in. Like Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle, Arthur has trouble distinguishing between what’s real and what’s fantasy, so, by extension, the audience does as well. As mentioned earlier, The Joker is a famously unreliable narrator, and the viewer is left with a sense of disbelief at what they’re seeing. At times, they even hope that what they’re seeing is in Arthur’s mind and not happening in real life. If Phillips’ intention is to keep his audience on its toes, he pulls it off perfectly. If not, it’s a happy accident. Either way, it’s expertly done.
There are a couple of things that Joker is not. It’s not a Batman movie, even though it has obvious connections to the Batman universe and clearly takes place within the same timeline. It’s also not a superhero movie. On the contrary, it’s a super-villain movie, full of brutal and graphic violence. Finally, it’s not for kids, no matter how big of a DC Comics fan they may be. Not only does the movie feature scenes of murder and mayhem, but it deals with plenty of ideas, from political unrest to mental illness, that may disturb younger viewers. Do you know where your children are?
Joker is a masterfully made movie, but it won’t appeal to everyone. There’s an obvious political leaning, but it’s one that can (and probably will) be interpreted in a few different ways. So be careful. You may find yourself relating to all of the wrong characters.
Joaquin Phoenix brings his absolute A-game to Joker. The movie is basically a character study of an outcast, and Phoenix is able to balance the laughter with the pain, giving the audience a taste of Arthur’s inner turmoil as well as his outer smile. As is the case with many of Phoenix’s performances, the audience loses him in Joker. The viewer is not watching Joaquin Phoenix, they’re watching Arthur Fleck. And every tear and every guffaw, every cigarette drag and every forced smile is loaded with the nuance and subtext of a tortured soul. It’s an incredible performance.