Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Shea Whigham
Directed by Todd Phillips
The gritty look and dark tone of Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is exactly the origins story needed for the sinister supervillain created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson almost 80 years ago. Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the best performances of his career as the imminent Caped Crusader’s rival, one that eclipses Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in 2009, in what could be dubbed this generation’s “Taxi Driver.” DC purists may be vexed by Phillips and Scott Silver’s storyline while some moviegoers will be alienated by the film’s senseless violence in this zero-tolerance era. Still, the villain portrayed by Phoenix is a product of society, a disturbing fact often overshadowed by the violence itself but front and center here in Phillips’ interpretation.
Early 80s Gotham City resembles the sordid ambiance prevalent in Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece “Taxi Driver” and in many ways, Phoenix’s character Arthur Fleck is similar to De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Both are loners with delusional anxiety who are transformed after committing senseless acts of violence. There is nothing in the film’s first half that indicates you’re watching a story unfold in the DC universe, but as the Wayne family and Arkham Asylum (known here as Arkham State Hospital) are incorporated into the storyline, Phillips reminds the audience that this is an origins story as Phoenix sinks to depth’s unexplored by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger.
Phoenix plays a clown for hire named Arthur Fleck who lives with his mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) in a small dilapidated apartment in Gotham City. Mental illness runs in the family, the extent revealed late in the film. We watch as Arthur is physically and mentally bullied and beaten by teenagers, colleagues, and even his own mother as the character’s psyche is shaped by those around him.
There are signs of Batman in the film who is only a child here (played by Dante Pereira-Olson who played the younger version of Phoenix in 2017’s “You Were Never Really Here”) as the young Bruce Wayne who has an unforgettable encounter with Arthur outside the gates of Wayne Manor as Alfred the butler (Douglas Hodge) intervenes at just the right moment. Brett Cullen plays Bruce’s father Thomas Wayne who is running for mayor of Gotham City. His campaign may be seen by some as a reflection of the current political climate as the millionaire frowns upon the less fortunate while declaring himself their savior.
Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role, similar to De Niro who lost 60 pounds to play Jake La Motta, in a transformative performance worthy of an Oscar nod. Here De Niro plays a Johnny Carson replacement (complete with Ed McMahon substitute) named Murray Franklin who invites Arthur to come on his talk show after making fun of him by airing a clip of his horrible standup routine. The scenes with De Niro recall Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” where the actor played a mentally unstable standup comic (like Phoenix’s character) who kidnaps talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in order to gain a slot on his popular television show. De Niro is playing the Langford role in “Joker” which is saturated with Scorsese references.
Director Todd Phillips is known for comedies that include “Old School,” “The Hangover,” and “War Dogs,” but recently he revealed that he chose to shy away from those type of films because it’s hard to be funny in today’s ultra-sensitive climate where people are easily offended. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out for him since there will be some pushback from moviegoers upset by either the violence in “Joker” or its interpretation of DC’s supervillain. Someone will always be offended about one thing or another.
If Phillips had “Taxi Driver” in mind while creating his vision he has succeeded in placing us back into the seedy, dirty world of Travis Bickle. Kudos to cinematographer Lawrence Sher (his sixth collaboration with Phillips) who used the ARRI Alexa 65 to give the digitally shot film a vintage 35mm aesthetic. Production designer Mark Friedberg magically transports us to late 70s-early 80s New York for Gotham’s look shooting in parts of the city that aren’t familiar enough to break the illusion that we are in another urban landscape apart from NYC.
The violence in “Joker” isn’t glorified or gratuitous. Phillips is going for realism and he accomplishes that goal. Still, there are moments of violence that feel surreal which loses some of the impact intended by the director. The film is so engrossing that when gun violence takes place on screen the audience isn’t immediately reminded of our current real-world climate. It’s only after reflecting on the film that it begins to sink in. It’s the same effect you may get today after viewing a classic from Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino.
Phoenix is amazing in one of the best performances of his career. The freedom given to the actor to adlib results in some unforgettable scenes and an iconic moment on a staircase as the fully transformed Joker moves to the music of Gary Glitter’s “Rock n Roll Part 2.” The soundtrack runs the gamut from Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” to Frank Sinatra’s “Send in the Clowns,” Patsy Cline’s “The Wayward Wind,” to “White Room” by Cream.
The supporting cast features good performances by Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbor and possible love interest, Frances Conroy as Joker’s mom, and Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as a couple of Gotham City detectives.
“Joker” is one of the best films of 2019 even though it jumps the rails with an ending that ditches the film’s persistence for reality by giving the audience a climax that you could only exist in a film based on comic book villains and heroes.