Directed by: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zasie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
Arthur Fleck laughs, sometimes inappropriately, so that he may not cry. Or kill. Even if Joker were not an origins story about Batman's greatest nemesis, Joker would still be a gritty and riveting tale of an ordinary man teetering on the edge of sanity. Borrowing in spirit from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joker's Arthur Fleck is a professional clown engaged in daily conflict with his demons. He was once institutionalized, he regularly visits an overworked social worker in a messy office, and takes seven different medications to battle his various psychological ailments. As Joker opens, he is mugged while performing a sidewalk gig holding up a "going out of business" sign. Things don't get any better for him.
Arthur takes care of his ailing mother, who once worked for Thomas Wayne (Cullen), the billionaire industrialist and father of Bruce who is running for mayor of early 1980's Gotham, which is in the midst of a sanitation workers' strike and is overflowing with bags of garbage left untouched on city streets. Tensions in Gotham are escalating to nightmarish proportions, and this mirrors the tensions within Arthur himself. A co-worker sells Arthur a gun so he can protect himself at his gigs, which is akin to giving an arsonist gasoline and a match.
Arthur's hellish life drifts into focus. He finds a measure of relief in a budding romance with his neighbor Sophie (Beetz), who smiles at him in the elevator and doesn't appear to be turned off by his generally creepy demeanor. When faced with a scary situation or potential conflict, Arthur laughs maniacally and uncontrollably. He attributes it to his past physical and psychological trauma, and he isn't wrong.
How Arthur ties into, or doesn't tie into the Wayne family is soon explained. We see how, in Arthur's world, not everything is what it seems. His fragile state of mind leaves open the question as to what is real and what isn't. One night on the subway, Arthur kills three yuppie creeps and finds elation in the act. It is the release he has sought, and soon finds violence is his nature. Through all this, we still sympathize with him, because while he clearly grows into a psychopath, we have to suspect it is due at least in part to past abuse and an altogether sad existence.
Nothing Joaquin Phoenix has done before prepared me for his excellent work here. I've enjoyed and appreciated him in Gladiator, Walk the Line, The Sisters Brothers, We Own the Night, and a few other films throughout his long career. Other times, I wasn't much moved by him because I couldn't get a sense of who was inside. He knew the words, but not the music. His Arthur Fleck is sad, monosyllabic, inarticulate, and full of seething rage. He cannot verbalize fully how trapped he feels, how his afflictions have hindered him, and how cannot break free without resorting to relenting to his crueler, violent nature.
The Gotham of Todd Phillips' film is filthy, ugly, and unsightly. The skies are gray. Even the interiors are gray and dirty. There isn't much sunshine, and what little exists is seen through windows from the inside. There is much happiness to be found here, but the effect isn't depressing, but instead adds atmosphere. Arthur's dreams of stand-up comedy fame intersect with TV talk show host Murray Franklin (DeNiro), whom Arthur idolizes. Murray's show, which resembles Johnny Carson's Tonight Show right down to the multi-colored curtain from which Murray and his guests emerge, attempts to bring at least some semblance of joy to the increasingly turbulent Gotham. It also attracts people like Arthur to hang around its periphery yearning to belong.
There are an abundance of reports and columns concerning the violence in Joker and how it stigmatizes the mentally ill as repugnant and violent. I don't agree that Joker is any more violent than other films. (Apparently no such uproar was made about Rambo: Last Blood, which was almost violence porn). Joker has its share of blood and violence, but the violent scenes are isolated and contain their own individual reasons for their existence, most as a tragic form of release for Arthur.
Joker is Arthur's individual story, and doesn't purport to be an allegory about society's treatment of the mentally ill or how the mentally ill are more prone to violent acts. Joker is instead a story told with superb craftmanship and anchored by a Phoenix performance which hits all the right notes about an odd, tormented, yet still sympathetic character. The story of The Joker is so fully and expertly realized that I hope it isn't watered down with an unnecessary sequel.