Todd Phillips’ Joker stars a superb Joaquin Phoenix, in a chaotic, gripping and unsettling film that fits its protagonist quite well.
Phillips, known for his comedies, comes to the comic book genre with a film that has little to nothing to do with Hollywood’s current biggest draw. A dark and sad character study, Phillips and his co-writer, Scott Silver, take the twisted and unknowable origins of Batman’s greatest villain and make something of their own. Phoenix plays an unstable and ex-institutionalized man, Arthur Fleck, who loves to entertain people as a clown in between fantasizing about fame, caring for his mother and having laughing fits at the worst possible moments. Fleck is also a wannabe comedian, and while his jokes might not be good, he is quite observant of the world crumbling around him. When the world forgets about him, and it barely remembers him in the first place, Arthur’s antics threaten to set Gotham on fire as he evolves into Joker.
The plotting of the film has a couple twists and turns, and maybe cuts a few corners, but when you step back when it’s all over, Phillips has crafted a film for the masses that, hopefully, might get them thinking about the forgotten people of the world. The film puts a lot on the table, gives you a lot to think about, and trusts you to see the bad even when your lead might think he’s doing good. There is a moral compass to the film, even while it depicts a man falling into villainy.
Speaking of that questionable man, Phoenix is worth the price of admission. He’s phenomenal, creating something new out of the well worn Joker persona (and that’s just cinematically) and pulling from his diverse bag of tricks as an actor to create a performance that feels fresh, if familiar from him. I think Phoenix and Phillips do a great job of letting Arthur slowly settle into his Joker persona, as an ease washes over him as the meds fade away and he embraces the chaotic bad side of his personality. Lawrence Sher’s close ups let you get inside Phoenix’s head, in what is one of the most striking looking films of the year.
The rest of the cast is adequate in their roles, but they are all basically there for Phoenix to do his thing off of. Robert DeNiro does a fine job as a late night host Arthur is obsessed with, and I appreciated getting to see the in front of and behind the camera personas of the man drawn differently in the performance. Zazie Beetz brings warmth to her small, and a bit shallow, role, that makes a lot more sense by the end of the film why it is what it is. Frances Conroy also feels a tad underused, and I think the film could have wiped away its biggest shortcoming with a scene or two more centered around her mother character and Phoenix.
Joker is the least fun comic book film to date, and that’s ok. I appreciate DC and Phillips taking a chance with such a, sadly, beloved character and trying to create something truly unsettling without an ounce of cool. I think they succeeded, in large part thanks to Phoenix churning out another incredible performance. The film’s craft is excellent, the score unsettles and it gets you thinking about the priorities of our world. Joker is worth the watch if you are up for something darker and more challenging than most blockbuster fare.