When The Dark Knight hit theaters 11 years ago, its impact on the comic-book movie genre was — and this is no hyperbole — seismic. Director Christopher Nolan distilled the Batman mythos into a relatively grounded crime thriller, blending superheroics with real-world authenticity. Joker, directed and co-written by Todd Phillips (a filmmaker with a far more suspect pedigree), takes The Dark Knight’s approach to its logical extreme — a grim, slow-burn character study drained of any comic-book pyrotechnics.
From the 1970s Warner Bros. logo in the opening credits, Phillips wants you to know that this is a goddamn prestige picture. In the end, Joker may still be just another movie, wearing the clothes of an Oscar contender without quite possessing the depth to win one (then again, it’s better than Green Book and Crash combined). Nevertheless, it’s a distinct enough take on the iconic supervillain to warrant your attention.
If you’ve seen any of Joker’s marketing, it shouldn’t come as a shock to hear this movie is first and foremost a Joaquin Phoenix showcase, an opportunity for the actor to stretch his physicality to alarming extremes. It’s a performance demented enough to make his ghoulish character from The Master seem almost well-adjusted.
Before he takes the Joker moniker, Arthur Fleck is clearly not well. He’s a twitching, fidgeting mess just barely keeping his day job as a clown-for-hire thanks to a cocktail of medications to treat psychosis. Meanwhile, uncontrolled spasms of shrieking laughter make him a public nuisance at best and downright chilling at worst. That laugh, along with the whole performance really, would come off like an obnoxious gimmick in the hands of the wrong actor. Luckily, Phoenix is one of our best, and even the various iterations of his laugh reveal deep emotional wounds.
As for the story, well, there isn’t much of one. Arthur’s situation devolves from bad to heinous, and the character slowly shifts from pathetic miscreant to repellent psychopath. That, of course, is inevitable. Still, Phoenix sells the transformation, particularly during a pivotal moment in which — after shooting three yuppies to death — the character embraces his dark destiny. Locking himself in a grimy subway bathroom, Arthur dances and preens in the mirror as Hildur Guðnadóttir’s mournful string score swells. It’s the first glimpse we get of the violent narcissist he’s to become.
While Phoenix’s performance makes the journey largely entertaining, it’s unfortunately in spite of the screenplay rather than because of it. Arthur is first and foremost a capital-V victim, mistreated by Gotham City’s rulers and inhabitants at every turn. The first act is mainly a collection of scenes in which Arthur is treated like shit by every person he encounters. Not that he’s alone: Gotham, grimy to the touch thanks to Lawrence Sher’s meticulous cinematography, is an irredeemable hellscape where the less fortunate are steamrolled over by wealthy fatcats like mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), both of whom become an unhealthy outlet for Arthur’s daddy issues.
Joker postulates that its titular villain is a product of his corrupt environment, which is perfectly fine except screenwriters Phillips and Scott Silver can’t seem to mine any coherent ideas from their premise. Plenty of overbearing discourse has taken place over the movie’s *ahem* inspiration from Martin Scorsese. Indeed, scenes are lifted whole cloth from two of Scorsese’s directorial masterpieces, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and casting De Niro is no doubt Phillips’ way of publicly acknowledging as such. Those films, as disturbing as they could be, were rife with sharp insights on American culture — particularly the media’s glamorization of violence and male entitlement. Joker certainly suggests those topics — white men radicalized to violence and indifferent plutocrats make up about 90% of today’s headlines — but they’re only that: suggestions. It’s hard not to sense what this could have been in the hands of a true descendent of Scorsese, filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky or the Safdie Brothers.
As an avid reader of Batman comics my entire life, my anticipation for this movie has been a whirlwind of emotions ranging from outright dread to unbearable excitement. Much of the Joker’s appeal lies in his enigmatic nature, and to explain his madness provides logic to a character who never needed any. And is this explanation better than whatever most comic-book fans have dreamed up in their heads for the past several decades? Not really. But by the time Phoenix has fully embraced his homicidal persona, his performance — as well as the stunning cinematography — makes all the nasty retribution feel downright thrilling. With the right screenplay, this really could have been something. But as it is, it’s a smooth descent into empty nihilism. Just don’t expect anything more than that.