Joker takes the DC Universe and comic-book movies into a new direction. One darker and more different than even die-hard devotees might expect, and one that might not have worked as well as it does were it not for the spellbinding performance of Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. It’s a shattering tour de force that ranks with the actor’s very best work. Don’t be surprised if Academy voters take notice.
As the title implies, this is an origin story. Although the screenplay (by producer/director Todd Phillips and Scott Silver) adheres to some tenets of the traditional DC Comics, it also adds some new angles of its own – some of which, again, may raise the hackles of purists. But Phillips, whose fact-based War Dogs (2016) was among that year’s best (and most overlooked) films, plunges ahead relentlessly and with a brazen, but never reckless, confidence. He’s not pulling any punches or taking any prisoners. Like it, love it, hate it, agree or disagree – Joker is in your face, and it’s not going away.
A struggling street clown and aspiring stand-up comic, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a misfit, desperately out of step, barely existing on the periphery of society in Gotham City, which is so riddled with urban angst and civil unrest that pompous billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is considering a run for mayor.
Stricken with a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, he tends his ailing, delusional mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who years before worked for Wayne and still carries a torch for him. Arthur’s is a life of despair and desperation, and Phoenix’s performance goes right into the heart of darkness – and beyond.
Robert De Niro appears as T.V. talk-show host Murray Franklin, and his very presence is a reminder of the Martin Scorsese influence here. The film is set in 1981, a year when Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) achieved new heights of notoriety when John David Hinckley (an obsessed fan of the film) shot President Reagan, and during the early production of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) – a film in part inspired by the Hinckley incident. Both of these films, not coincidentally, starred De Niro, whose smug Franklin is a more successful incarnation of his Rupert Pupkin character in King of Comedy.
There are also nods to William Friedkin, Alfred Hitchcock, the Purge films, and, given the narrative’s operatic tone, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s classic Pagliacci, the tragic tale of a forlorn clown. Joker is rife with symbolism, on a number of levels. As befits its (deserved) R-rating, there are bursts of violence, but equally effective is the building of tension toward that violence, augmented by Hildur Guonadottir’s chilling score. Deadpool (2016) went far, but Joker goes further – and deeper and darker. One thing’s for certain: This is not a comic-book film for kids.
Zazie Beetz, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Glenn Fleshler, Brian Tyree Henry, Bill Camp (recently seen to good effect in the otherwise risible crime drama The Kitchen) and Leigh Gill also make solid impressions in smaller roles. Still, there’s never any doubt who the star of the show is. Phoenix may not be the Joker for all times, but he is the Joker for our times.
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