When Batman ruled the summer three decades ago, Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader was deemed too dark by some. That seems quaint now with the harder edged comic book adaptations that have come our way recently and it especially applies to Joker. This stand-alone origin pic from Todd Phillips wears its influences overtly with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver being the most obvious. It’s a grim tale focused on mental health in which Joaquin Phoenix dominates every frame of celluloid he’s in and that’s pretty much every moment. Much of the time, we are simply waiting for his character to snap. The tension is palpable as his involuntary cackles provide the soundtrack. Heath Ledger might still be the best Joker, but this film has the most Joker. And Phoenix runs a somewhat close second.
It’s 1981 in a gamy Gotham City and Arthur Fleck is a clown for hire with hopes of becoming a stand-up. He gets a load of meds from the government that don’t seem to stem the tide of a slow boiling rage (with a makeup infused smile, of course). He dreams of killing it (in the humorous sense) on a national talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin. Arthur watches the show with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), whose screws may also not be fully tightened. And there’s a fledgling romance with a single mom (Zazie Beetz) whose apartment inhabits the same floor of a dingy high rise.
Joker is centered on classism almost as much as Arthur’s derangements. Among our central character’s first criminal acts involves a trio of WASPy Wayne Enterprise employees. This is just as billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is exploring a Mayoral run and the eventual Bat Dad might have some surprising connections to the eventual Bat nemesis. Some have accused Joker of romanticizing the man. I didn’t see it that way, but there’s certainly a sense of the have nots sticking it to the haves.
We have grown accustomed to high tech and CGI infused violence in this genre. Not here. The bloodshed is sudden, in your face, and occasionally shocking. Just like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix undergoes a metamorphosis by losing a ton of weight. Arthur looks as sick as his mind is. Like Ledger in The Dark Knight, it’s hard to take your eyes off him as he dances, laughs in a disturbing elevated pitch, and heads toward the breakdown. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s demented sandbox to play in and I dug the opportunity to witness this darkness without a dawn in its sights.
***1/2 (out of four)