My first time seeing Joker felt dangerous. As we walked down the dark hall of the multiplex, we passed a heavily armed police officer patrolling the area. Security increased in movie theaters across the country due to concerns over the film’s controversial portrait of a lethal loner. What unfolded on screen was far from a call to arms. Joker emerged as a deeply disturbing vision of a civilized society on the verge of evil.
I’m not one for revisiting movies on the big screen again and again, but I ended up seeing this film three times in theaters. It’s not particularly profound, but its intoxicating air of dread kept me coming back for more — much in the same way we all keep trudging through our country’s sociopolitical muck.
The film is set in an early 1980s Gotham City that might as well be Martin Scorsese’s New York in 1983’s The King of Comedy. In fact, it also follows a struggling comedian, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Like The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), Arthur’s humor comes from a place of pain. “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t,” Arthur writes in his joke book.
While we actually see Rupert’s full set, we never get a strong sense of Arthur’s style. It’s disappointing that co-writer / director Todd Phillips didn’t dig into his comedic background to flesh out how Arthur could reveal his trauma and find catharsis through comedy.
Fortunately, Phoenix elevates the weak script (co-written by Scott Silver) with a physical, quietly implosive performance. Whether he’s putting on clown shoes or climbing the mountain of stairs leading to his apartment building, he looks as though he’s perpetually sinking into the ground. Phoenix makes us feel the weight of Arthur’s depression.
Lawrence Sher’s expansive cinematography emphasizes that Arthur is not alone in the crumbling city of Gotham. And Hildur Guðnadóttir’s thunderous string score captures the mounting rage.
Of course, Arthur eventually turns toward violence, sparking an anarchist movement that spreads across Gotham like wildfire. Here, the film becomes all too timely, recalling the recent surge of hate group activity in America.
When he finally meets his idol, talk-show host Murray Franklin (De Niro), Arthur’s face looks like a bleeding American flag. You can see his humanity fading through the ghostly red, white and blue makeup. When fellow clowns later revel in the chaos he causes, you can’t help but think of the basket of deplorables carrying enthusiasm for Trump. The ending is terrifying rather than triumphant.
Like the Scorsese films to which it pays homage, Joker seduces you into following a seemingly empathetic misfit before pulling their mask off to reveal the monster behind it. Too often viewers confuse depiction with endorsement when it comes to films revolving around violent characters. Despite the film’s therapist’s-eye view of him, Joker definitely remains a villain.
Special features on the Blu-ray / DVD release (which includes a code for a digital copy) leave a lot to be desired. “Becoming Joker” is a compilation of screen tests. “Joker: A Chronicle of Chaos” is simply a slideshow of still photographs that spoil the entire movie. “Joker: Vision & Fury” is the only substantial behind-the-scenes featurette, but it offers few fresh insights beyond Phoenix’s interpretation of Joker as “a combination of Katherine Hepburn and Dr. Frankenfurter.” The greatest thrill of this featurette is the glimpse it gives into Phoenix’s unpredictable performance on set. It shows his vastly different takes, which he thought appropriate given the character’s erratic nature.
This featurette is essentially a rebuttal to the idea that this film is a cash-grab. From the thoughtful development of the concept to the meticulous production design, careful costuming and Phoenix’s passionate performance, Joker is clearly a labor of love.