I’m always skeptical when a film receives too much hype. With the on-again, off-again quality of American fare, I try not to set my hopes too high, especially when it comes to a film about the D.C. Comics’s The Joker, by the director of “The Hangover” series.
It is with great pleasure that I report that, while the film itself isn’t the cinematic masterpiece that some have christened it, Todd Phillips’s “Joker” is one of the finest films of 2019 with Joaquin Phoenix delivering one of the great performances of modern cinema, and definitely his personal best. Phillips (and co-screenwriter Scott Silver) could care less about your comic book expectations. Sure, the story is set in Gotham City and we get to find out a bit about a well-to-do family that bears the name of “Wayne,” but this director has bigger fish to fry. This is no comedy and the film is all the better for it.Phillips designed his film to pay tribute to Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” and so he does so deferently, avoiding overt and heavy-handed references.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a man who is seriously mentally ill and dangerously unstable, living in an equally unstable city. He stays in a shitty apartment on a bad side of town with his mother (Frances Conroy), whom he looks after.
Fleck works as a clown for hire in a low-rent company and dreams of getting a shot at doing stand-up comedy on a late night show hosted by his hero, Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro in a flip side role referencing “The King of Comedy” (De Niro inherited the Jerry Lewis character).
Joaquin Phoenix does the kind of physical and mental transformation that few actors dare to dive into these days. The actor lost over fifty pounds in his quest to lose himself in the role. Phoenix is gone and Arthur Fleck is all we can see in his wake.
As Fleck is confronted with the state cutting the funding that allowed him to get his subsidized medication (he takes seven different medications for his strange conditions, one that includes uncontrollable laughter) and helped him keep a roof over his head, he finds a love interest in a woman down the hall (a serene Zazie Beetz) from his apartment. His attraction to her is off-putting but we watch as she becomes a bit player in the twisted play that is Arthur Fleck’s life. If their time together doesn’t feel right, it’s not supposed to. Nothing Fleck touches is ever right again.
The “Joker” is dark, manic and twisted. Fleck is a man on a collision course with Hell and he intends to embrace the “comedy of his life” on the way. It was violence that sent the already unstable Fleck down his path of evil and if you’ve ever looked at him sideways he will drag you down to meet the violence he now endorses, and wears as a second skin.
It is quite amazing to watch Phoenix at work. He brings a physicality to the role that’s jarring as he twists and contorts his gaunt figure, dialing up the villain factor, pushing the antihero to his existential limit. Fleck is a vile creature and Phoenix makes his body reflect the repulsiveness of the character. He goes to the deepest reaches of Joker’s broken down psyche with the precision of a tight rope walker and zero-fucks-given chutzpah.
The streets of Gotham are just as ghastly. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography may as well be Phoenix’s co-star—it is quite simply jaw-dropping. His Gotham is a dark underworld where the sun is scared to shine and the fog-filled city blocks are bathed in the off-colors of Times Square in the early eighties (think “Escape from New York”). Every shot in this film is stunning.
Todd Phillips’s first film was a documentary about G.G. Alin, a punk rock singer who liked to mutilate himself on stage while singing. With “Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies“ the director feeds on his hero’s wild energy and psychotic shenanigans, one-upping this with this here new film. In “Joker,” both the director and his star dive headfirst into mayhem with the kind of artistic commitment that eludes many big-budget Hollywood film directors.
This film doesn’t kowtow to the masses, nor does it suffer fools gladly. “Joker” is a dark and grim tale about a madman who succumbs to the violence bubbling up inside him. There is no one to root for, and that is okay, lest we forget that films don’t always have a hero or a happy ending.
“Joker” is a morality-defying, two-hour vertical drop down a man’s impaired psyche. It is also a film that distills abled directing, great writing, and a show-stopping performance by one of our most daring actors alive today to make vital cinema.
Anthony Francis is a regular contributor to Screen Comment.