Gotham City, 1981. Sanitation services are on strike, leaving piles of garbage curb side. Mounting inequality and rampant poverty poison the collective climate and spur on bubbling unrest. Billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) makes the kind of callous comments on live tv that don’t help anyone’s situation much. “Is it just me or are things getting crazier out there?” laments Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. He’s more right than he knows, both in terms of ‘out there’ and closer to home. Todd Phillips’ Joker is a brilliant, flammable, uncomfortable, thought provoking, beautifully crafted piece not only on its own terms as a standalone character study but also as part of the Batman universe as well.
Arthur lives with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in a shit box apartment, works as a street clown for an agency that resents him, sees a dour social worker until funding is cut along with access to his medication. He idolizes a funny-man TV talk show host (Robert Deniro in scenery chewing mode) until the guy cruelly mocks him for laughs. Arthur is as close to snapping as the entire city around him and one can almost use his gradually disintegrating grasp on reality and coherence as a barometer for that of Gotham itself and the world outside the cinema that we know too. Phoenix is indescribably good in the role, shedding pounds and growing a shaggy mane to portray this beyond iconic antagonist and giving us a portrayal that is so well built up, so scarily developed that by the time he has incarnated into the full fledged clown prince of crime we feel like running for the door in terror. But he’s also madly human too, a man repeatedly stomped down by the forces around him until a combination of stress, untreated mental illness, hurt and humiliation push him over that edge in a startling act of violence. Joaquin is the star here but Phillips also populates his Gotham with a variety of faces both new and familiar including Douglas Hodge, Zazie Beets, Brian Tyree Henry, Josh Pais, Bill Camp, Shea Wigham, Glenn ‘The Yellow King’ Fleshler and more.
So, about that elephant in the room. I don’t usually like to address this kind of thing in my reviews but this film has inexplicably whipped up a hilariously misguided fever of opinions, so read loud and clear folks: The Joker is a comic book character. This is a film. The way he’s written here is as a mentally ill victim of an would be standup comedian who is pushed to the brink, left to stew in his own mind as well as a horrifying cycle of abuse and finally loses it. This film in no way glorifies, condones or puts lone wolf violence onto a pedestal and if you think otherwise than you either haven’t seen the film or gravely misunderstood it’s themes. This maniacal, dogmatic, woke-a-cola nonsense has no business here and those peddling it should be embarrassed of themselves, shut both their mouths and their laptops, go into the corner and count to ten. Got it? Good.
Philips has created quite the vision of Gotham and The Joker here, drawing inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s work, lovingly observing key touchstones of the Batman universe and adding his own stylistic flairs that help this thing do a dance all its own. This is not a crowd pleaser or a pleasant experience though. Gotham has none of the Hammer aura of Burton or Broadway kitsch of Schumacher, but is simply a weary, dirty, worn out avatar for late seventies New York with just a tad of 30’s/40’s atmosphere present in the soundtrack choices and a terrific cameo from Charlie Chaplin. Phoenix owns the film and can’t really be compared. I love every Joker portrayal so far in cinema (yes even Jared Leto) for a host of different reasons and Phoenix adds another incendiary notch to the belt here with his psychologically shredded howl of a performance. Add to that gorgeous, gritty urban cinematography by Lawrence Sher, stunningly grimy and beautifully lit production design by Mark Friedberg and a surprisingly ethereal, skin crawling score from Hildur Guanodóttir and you’ve got quite the package. One of the best films of the year so far.