In the Batman comics, The Joker is just one of the bad guys who plagues Gotham City (albeit the most famous). And of all of the villains, he’s been a Hollywood favourite.
Directors have been taking him into darker places, starting with Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight and, more recently Jared Leto in Suicide Squad. But both of those movies had the Joker as a player in an ensemble set in the Batman comic universe. And even the more serious Dark Knight wore its comic book roots on its sleeve.
Joker takes a much different, more palpably real approach.
Phillips has dropped the comic book vision of Gotham for something much grittier. It’s the early ‘80s. The gap between the rich and poor is getting starker, as services that advantage the community are being cut. A garbage strike is dragging on, making a mess of city streets and adding to tensions.
There’s a mayoral election as well, with the ultra-wealthy Thomas Wayne, father to young Bruce Wayne, leading the pack. He’s not seen as a friend to the people.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, who makes his living as a clown and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He lives with his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), in a shabby apartment in a run-down building.
She encourages his ambitions, telling him she nicknamed him Happy because she believes he was born to bring joy to people. Together they watch TV, especially a live late-night talk show fronted by a grim comedian named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Fleck’s greatest hope is to become successful enough as a comedian to be a guest on his hero’s show.
We can see that Fleck has some problems. He has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, and a card he hands people explaining that it’s a medical condition. He misreads social cues.
But, for the first little while in Joker, Fleck is just a guy, albeit an odd one, doing what he can to make his way in the world.
He’s good to his uncomfortably co-dependent mother. He’s flirts a little shyly with his neighbour, single mom Sophie (Zazie Beetz).
Fleck is a guy who has been raised with no advantages in a city where the rich get richer and the poor do what they can, who has been trying to live as normally as possible, while focused on his seemingly unrealistic show business goals.
He’s had problems in the past and so meets regularly with a social worker. He shows up prepared for their meetings, he seems to be playing ball. But she’s more administrator, than therapist, and barely veils her distaste for him. That’s where we start to see, in his reaction, hints of what really lies inside him. But, still, Fleck keeps things in check.
And then a series of things happen to him that start to wear down his facade. Provoked and aiming to protect a vulnerable woman, he commits a shocking crime. In a violent, pitiless town, the barrage of betrayals and that moment where his own violence is unleashed, take their toll. And what emerges is a Joker unlike any we’ve seen before.
Although Joker is an origin story, Phillips has said this was meant as a stand-alone film, and it functions as one.
Rather than being an obvious base for a franchise, he wanted to make a film inspired by a different time in American filmmaking and was particularly inspired by two of Martin Scorsese’s movies, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy.
And that he’s accomplished, for better and for worse. One of the criticisms of the film is that it’s a bit too much “Taxi Driver Goes to Gotham.”
Joker is in many ways an homage to those films. At the same time, Phillips hasn’t simply made a replica. By setting this in the past, before Bruce Wayne has become Batman, Phillips has kept Gotham’s cartoonish bad guys out of this.
Instead, we have a much more complex story, of a man who’s genuinely motivated to be as good as he knows how to be, and has that eroded in ways that we can see and understand.
It’s easy enough to see him as a psychopath. But Fleck is a person who descends into his madness for reasons we can see and perhaps even understand.
There’s another stream to this film. Fleck commits his act of savage violence while wearing his clown make-up. That oddity is interpreted as an act of rebellion by Gotham’s disenfranchised to wear clown masks in solidarity, and then commit acts increasingly violent civil disobedience.
We are, of course in Gotham, not the real world. Gotham is a city that is a dystopian version of New York, and a version of humanity working at a heightened-reality level of antagonism and violence.
And yet, in a time in our history where people feel deep divisions, the movie is perhaps a little too close to home for comfort.
At the centre of the movie is Joaquin Phoenix, who won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for this role. Phoenix is simply one of the best actors in contemporary film, with a staggering range. He’s an un-showy actor who does a deep dive into his characters, and unlike many Hollywood stars, he’s willing to take on roles that repulse.
In Joker, he disappears into Fleck and takes him from a dutiful son, to a confused man, to the psychopathic Joker character in a seamless arc. When he finally becomes Joker, Phoenix does a dance down a staircase, as if all burdens of the world have been lifted off of him.
He has been released, and is embracing himself with a kind of joy that belongs to the damned. It’s a glorious performance and a terrifying moment in a film that revels in its dark heart.
Joker. Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy and Robert De Niro. Opens wide October 3.