Film Review – Joker (Second Take)
Joaquin Phoenix delivers one of the great performances of the year in Joker (2019). It is truly an outstanding piece of work, and another highlight in a career already filled with them. As the deranged protagonist, Phoenix is able to utilize the best of his skill set. It’s like a combination of his previous roles – the intensity from The Master (2012), the vulnerability from Her (2013) and the laser focus of Walk the Line (2005) – all wrapped up into a portrayal of unnerving anger, sadness, and unbound energy. He is a constant force to be reckoned with, demanding our attention and never letting go throughout every single minute.
Directed by Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver), Joker is a reinterpretation of the origins of the famous DC comics super-villain of the same name. In many iterations the character’s background is shrouded in mystery. That is not the case here. Phillips and Silver decided to trace their version all the way down the dark rabbit hole, creating a character study of madness. We meet Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) as a depressed outcast, flipping advertisement signs dressed as a clown. When he’s not in makeup, Artur spends much of his time caring for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and watching a popular late night talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin. Arthur dreams of becoming a standup comedian, with hopes of one day appearing on Franklin’s show and winning his approval.
The setting does take place in a superhero world, but that almost works as a detriment to the narrative. Every time we are introduced to elements that exist in a broader context – such as Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the wealthy father of Bruce Wayne/Batman – we get pulled out of the verisimilitude of Arthur’s story. In fact, if this had a different title it may have had an even better impact, negating all of the discourse of how this can fit into the “DC Cinematic Universe” instead of focusing on it as a singular, enclosed effort.
Todd Phillips made a name for himself as a comedic director but works perfectly fine in this kind of arena. The tone is moody and atmospheric, but he never allows it to become so depraved that it pushes the viewers away. This is tricky material – as Arthur’s delusions of grandeur increase and his hold on reality loosens, he starts to delve into more sinister and criminal activity. Luckily, Phillips maintains his point of view, never allowing the narrative to condone Arthur’s actions. Just because we can understand how Arthur psychologically gets from one point to another doesn’t mean that the movie is on his side. We are never asked to sympathize with him, but to simply bear witness.
It’s been widely reported that Phillips was influenced by the work of Martin Scorsese while making Joker, and it shows. Arthur’s ambitions of being a comic and growing obsessed with a tv host is reminiscent of The King of Comedy (1982). His need to violently lash out against a society that has betrayed him has echoes of Taxi Driver (1976). Even the score has certain rhythms and melodies that call back to Bernard Hermann’s famous work in Taxi Driver. And of course, we can’t forget to mention De Niro, who starred in both films and is a strong presence this time around. They say if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and that’s what Phillips does.
Jeff Groth’s editing changes the further along the plot progresses. Just as Arthur falls deeper into his hallucinations, the editing becomes more ambiguous. Scenes are taken at face value at one point only to turn back and be revealed as falsehoods. Arthur’s entire life was made up of deceits, and the film follows suit. We start to question if this is all happening in reality or if it is yet another one of Arthur’s fantasies. It’s a subtle but effective approach, so well done that by the very last shot we wonder how we got there and if what we’re seeing is nothing more than a figment of Arthur’s imagination.
Phillips and Silver do have some missteps. Zazie Beetz shows up as Arthur’s neighbor and potential love interest. In a story this dreary, Beetz’s character symbolizes the one beacon of hope for Arthur. Sadly, the writing and directing to do not provide her with enough material to become a dynamic and well-rounded character. Even more disappointing is that much of her character’s interaction with Arthur is comprised of montages, with background music masking whatever potential chemistry the two characters may have had.
There are also the economic and societal themes. As Arthur’s presence as “the Joker” becomes more widespread, his image becomes a symbol for those who feel as though the upper class have forgotten about them. Like Peter Finch screaming “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” in Network (1976), so too do the characters here, with Arthur as their guiding light. Unfortunately, Phillips and Silver don’t explore this aspect well enough for it to feel substantive. Arthur does feel like society has put its foot on his neck, but his actions are more motivated by selfishness and desire for notoriety as opposed to making a broader social message.
But my goodness, what an electrifying performance by Phoenix. With his emaciated body, awkward haircut, and unpredictable physicality, Phoenix sets the screen on fire. He carries the narrative on his slim shoulders, cackling hysterically all the while. It’s the work of a fearless performer, and the result is an acting masterclass.