'Joker' film review: Haunting, bleak unraveling of an outcast turned iconic maniac
The most terrifying aspect of "Joker" (opening in theaters nationwide Oct. 4) is not that he becomes an iconic supervillain, but the terrifyingly grounded and totally normal bad turns that transform an invisible man into society’s worst nightmare.
In short: Mentally ill struggling comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives on the margins of Gotham City - a city bringing the poor and working class to the brink of desperation. Also stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy.
"Joker" is the modern gold standard of empathetic, gritty storytelling. From the outset, Arthur has a tenuous grasp on reality, but he manages to led a small, seemingly insignificant and apparently invisible existence, working gigs as a clown and living with the love of his life, his mother. The entirety of "Joker" serves to methodically erode or upend every facet of Arthur's simple life.
Much has been made of the film's controversial social commentaries and themes, but Phoenix's performance is undeniably brilliant. It's a full-bodied and bone-deep turn wherein Phoenix utilizes his entire body to flesh out a complex character from head to toe. Arthur radiates a deep, soulful sadness and vulnerability - that slowly transforms into a man sitting on a simmering anger, filling each scene with more menace and terror. "Joker" starts by instilling a fear of what will happen next to Arthur - but before long, the audience starts to worry about what Arthur will do to everyone around him. Phoenix embodies Arthur's longing for a voice as well as a festering resentment at the world that ignores or rejects him.
Arthur is an anti-hero who is simultaneously the product of society and ultimately the product of his own increasingly violent decisions. He's a powerless man trying to survive in a ruthless world. Several of his most brutal acts are committed in the act of resistance or pushing back against forces intent on breaking Arthur.
Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy went out of its way to establish Batman as a symbol of hope against the corrupt. Writer-director Todd Phillips similarly establishes Arthur as an accidental symbol that taps into the angst and resentment of the poor against the rich. Wherein Bruce Wayne had hoped to inspire the people of Gotham, Arthur quite unintentionally becomes the spark that threatens to pull the city apart. He's not so much a general leading the city's downtrodden toward anarchy - Arthur simply embodies the anarchy overtaking the city. This effectively keeps "Joker" as a character-centric narrative - the motives that drive his character choices are always personal and deeply rooted, and the consequences of his actions mean more for him than it does for Gotham City as a whole.
It's a gross misreading of "Joker" to say this film lauds or celebrates Arthur's actions as heroic or even sympathetic. The film allows the audience to understand Arthur's motivations, but doesn't make him admirable. His actions abjectly horrify everyone except the bloodthirsty mob. Underneath Arthur's mounting rage is a desperate plea for empathy. The Joker is essentially molded by an indifferent, callous city that would have been OK with him dying alone and forgotten, yet, is horrified by a character created by the people of Gotham.
Final verdict: Phoenix's turn as the infamous Batman archvillain is the stuff of award season glory.
"Joker" opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 4. This psychological crime drama has a running time of 121 minutes and is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.