Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Goes Frighteningly Bats Before Our Eyes


Amid allegations that Todd Phillips’s film Joker is “a comic book movie that doesn’t want to be a comic book movie”, I say, “Read some comic books”.  Particularly, read some prominent Joker comic books.  You can go back as far as thirty-plus years ago, well before Tim Burton’s landmark 1989 Batman film, to the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland prestige one-shot, The Killing Joke.  You can check out Frank Miller’s dealings with the character in The Dark Knight Returns, from that same era.  You can go more recent, to Grant Morrison’s and Ed Brubaker’s explorations.  

Or, you can shut up and go with this, mindful that the term “comic book” is as equally malleable as the term “movie”.  So, it stands to reason that when the two terms are combined, the gateway of possibilities the joint term evokes should be all the more open-ended, not less.  But then, doing that defeats the purpose of having the term “comic book movie” in the first place.  Oh, what chaos have we unleashed??

Ask Todd Phillips.  Or better yet, don’t.  Just see this movie.  But! Prepare yourself for some next-level madness.  No joke.  Don’t let the fact that this Fall-season tentpole (which is doing double-duty as a major awards contender) is built around the most famous enemy of Batman mislead you.  More Logan than Deadpool, Joker disturbingly, uncomfortably, earns its R rating, and then some. No kids allowed.

Joaquin Phoenix, no stranger to playing violent, maladjusted sociopaths, gives an all-consuming tour-de-force performance as the title character.  But before Joker is Joker, he’s just plain old Arthur Fleck- a struggling party clown trying to care for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy, a veteran of 2004’s Catwoman, ironically) in between psychological check-ups with a city social worker.  An abuse victim growing up, Arthur veered into the pancake-makeup-smeared cliché of burying his pain by fostering the laughter of others.  It’s a long hard slog up the stone-cold staircase of respectability for a guy like Arthur, but his calling cannot be ignored.

Except, he sucks at his job.  And even heavily medicated, Arthur is not well.  Indeed, times are tough all over.  In the most violent year of gritty, trashy, super-rat infested 1981 NYC-esque Gotham, even an obnoxiously unfunny clown who’s prone to frightening fits of involuntarily laughter can easily slip through society’s cracks, going unnoticed.

Before long, his social services program’s budget is completely cut by the city.  This, of course, abruptly leaves Arthur and scores of other, less-fortunate mental illness sufferers (a prominent politician calls them “clowns”) with zero recourse.  And this, fellow citizens, is where Joker gets dicey.  

This, being a revisionist (if sociologically and cinematically retro-fied) origin story of The Joker, (sorry- “Joker”,) it’s no spoiler to say that Arthur’s comical persona takes a hard, forever turn to the homicidal.  Like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger before him, a purple suit, green hair, and a demented grin make the man.  Unlike them, though, the terror he commits and cultivates is far from random non-motivation.  When the world turns its back on Arthur Fleck, he puts on a happy face and turns on the world.  

Two things trigger him: his increasingly frustrated inability to get laughs out increasingly sick and desperate material (something that the director of The Hangover Parts 2 and 3 knows a thing or two about), and the fact that once the prescription drugs wear off, he realizes that life is much easier if he dances wildly down the stone cold staircase instead of forcing himself to go up.  Because clown shoes and staircases already aren’t a good combination.  Add a layer of “eat the rich” political anarchy on top of that, and you might just catch yourself sympathizing with this murderous, inglorious dreg.

Robert De Niro in JOKER.

And those are just a few reasons why Joker is legitimately being considered a “dangerous” movie by many.  That is, “dangerous” in the vintage pre-code Howard Hawks Scarface sense- an unhinged film in which the killer gangster is also the sympathetic protagonist.  Martin Scorsese has pointed this out in his fine documentary A Personal Journey Through American Cinema.  Fitting, then, that some of Scorsese’s greatest work, namely Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, are not-so-subtly evoked, in any number of ways.  (Not the least of which being the presence of Robert De Niro, who has a choice supporting role in this film). Which is fine.  IndieWire’s Eric Kohn recently stated that he went into Joker braced for a movie that would merely be “arthouse” in quotes, having been directed by the newly serious Todd Phillips who wore a t-shirt that says “AUTEUR” the entire time.  I confess, so too did I.  But Joker, though highly questionable in its messaging, can’t be accused of holding anything back.  

Will Joker insight real-life violence?  While such a possibility isn’t unforeseen by any number of pundits and fear-mongers, the scary corners of the Internet that would no doubt be to blame are already frighteningly clownish without ever needing a disturbing funny-book baddie to come to life and rally them to such action.  Against certain odds, this is a genuinely disturbing film with a truly unsettling chain-smoking performance at its center.  Joker is about as sure-handed in its filmmaking as any of the films it portends to, resulting in a brilliantly off-kilter movie that, contrary to popular belief, does not run from its Batman beginnings.  There’s plenty that could be spoiled about Joker, though it’s no spoiler to say that one way or another, appreciate it or detest it; give it awards or don’t; it will not be forgotten.  Maybe ever.