In 1981, impoverished comedian Arthur Fleck will discover the healing power of laughter and become Gotham City’s most infamous supercriminal.
Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is one hell of a gripping exercise in misery on the mean streets of Gotham City by way of “Taxi Driver.” Positioning itself as a “real” film instead of the usual blockbuster comic book movie, Phillips has enlisted acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix and others with the aim to create a disturbingly plausible tale of a beaten-down man deciding to lash out at society after decades of abuse. So, after all the controversies, hype and acclaim, does “Joker” get the last laugh?
In my opinion, mostly. And that “mostly” is largely thanks to Joaquin Phoenix.
As always, Phoenix doesn’t just act so much as perform. His gaunt, sickly frame and tranquil anger add so much to this version of the Joker. Rather than a faux-nihilistic terrorist or a self-effacing homicidal artist, the Joker that Phoenix and co. have introduced here is an impoverished man with mental illness being beaten down by both an apathetic healthcare system and public.
The Joker here feels less like Ledger’s masterstroke and more as a combination of elements from Cameron Monaghan’s acclaimed turn in the “Gotham” along with the background of Rupert Pukin from the 1982 Scorsese flick “The King of Comedy.” There’s some original stuff, such as the choice to afflict Fleck with pseudobulbar effect, a real condition that triggers uncontrollable bouts of laughing or crying, which results in Fleck embarrassing himself. It’s a neat idea that conveys just how much a struggle it is for Fleck to find basic happiness or sympathy in his life.
The range of emotions he has to juggle is wide, and he rises to the task, invoking sympathy, disgust and terror from the audience. As Arthur goes from the most pathetic man in the world to an unhinged psychotic with an increasingly brittle grip, it feels natural and part of a larger arc that builds to its inevitably visceral conclusion. Fleck’s transformation is unnervingly natural and it won’t be forgotten.
Neither will Phoenix’s brilliant and haunting performance. As a new direction for a familiar character, it’s mostly a damn good one.
As for direction staging, Phillips directs with a confident and sure hand. The man shows a flair for long takes, both steadied and by hand, while also not afraid to get uncomfortably close to Phoenix. At times, the film emits an odor of pure sleaze and disgust for both Gotham and humanity. Phillips does one heck of a good job. The set design is something that not everyone’s going to like, however.
The Gotham City that Fleck inhabits is by far the most wretched it’s ever been in live-action: seedy, garbage bags strewn everywhere on the curbs and permanently downcast. I especially loved all the graffiti and decay, reminding me of old urban grindhouse thrillers. This isn’t Chicago or a gothic art-deco wonder, it’s the Big Rotten Apple incarnate. It all adds to one especially grim film, especially in the writing.
The writing is mostly strong. While it fumbles a bit by having the Joker reflect societal anger, a theme that feels somewhat like a misunderstanding of Ledger’s ideas, and some scenes feels a bit “dark for darkness’ sake,” it’s handling of Fleck’s descent into madness very well, with a naturalistic, if somewhat contrived journey.
My feelings on its twists are still not quite concrete at this stage. The handling of mental illness is rather nuanced, but it’s a very fine tightrope walk that some may see fall into stereotyping and poor taste — which it kind of did at times.
This film, one set in a pre-Batman Gotham, is grim. There is no hope here, only the increasing antipathy the disgruntled have for the privileged. It can get unbearable at times, leaving one apathetic due to a real lack of anyone to root for. While I’ve enjoyed films with antipathic cores, the one in “Joker” is hollow and filled only by edge and darkness.
Musically, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir turns a sublime score, with nearly every piece perfectly complimenting each and every scene. The most noteworthy highlights are whenever Fleck seems to reach yet another point in his violent metamorphosis, with the cello maintaining an unnerving yet harmonious motif that will be hard to forget.
As a whole, “Joker” is mostly a good sum of its parts. It doesn’t reach the heights of its (very apparent) inspirations, but it’s still a solid if at times empty, psychological crime drama.
My rating: 3.5/5
Featured Illustration: Kylie Phillips