Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a low-income rent-a-clown with aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian in Gotham City in the 1980s. He lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and has a crush on the single mom who lives down the hall (Zazie Beetz). He’s timid, awkward, clueless, and suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he’s nervous or in a high-tension situation.
A string of bad things happen to Arthur: he gets beat up by a pack of juvenile delinquents, he gets fired from his job when he foolishly brings a gun to a gig, his stand up act bombs miserably and is then plastered all over Gotham’s #1 late night show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). When he’s attacked by a group of corporate yuppies on the subway train, Arthur defends himself and kills his attackers! The murders become a public issue that even billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) can’t help but comment on for the presses.
Arthur realizes he likes the way he feels killing people. It sets him free and makes him no longer the victim. That is until his mother informs him that he’s Thomas Wayne’s illegitimate son, which he finds out may not be true. His rampage turns him into a symbol for the poor in the city who feel the “haves” needs to be taken down a notch.
Written by Scott Silver (The Finest Hours, The Fighter, 8 Mile) and director Todd Phillips (War Dogs, The Hangover franchise), Joker is filled with several nods to movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – including the appearance of Robert De Niro. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher (Godzilla: King of The Monsters) brings life to this cinematic portray of a man well on his descent into madness. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is haunting, often simultaneously in the same frame.
Despite the criticism and backlash this film’s been getting, Joaquin Phoenix gives a brilliant performance as the Clown Prince of Crime; he’s destined to earn an Oscar nomination for his work here. He brings the character of Arthur to life in a way nobody else could, from subtleties in how his body language shifts as he “finds himself” to the grotesque way he nearly overwhelms every scene with such a raw tour de force interpretation of Batman’s most iconic rogue. He’s truly magnificent and is worth the price of admission alone.
Alas, I agree with the criticism and backlash about the rest of the movie. Joker has a strong “art house” feel to it that may be off-putting and jarring to anyone who may have expected this to be another comic book movie. This isn’t Avengers. It’s not even The Dark Knight Rises. Joker is an artsy, incredibly dark spin on one of the most morally complex comic characters. There’s a huge difference.
But it’s not disappointment at the style of movie I dislike the most. It’s how Joker not only tries to humanize a sick and twisted killer but may actually suggest he’s the hero! I’m fine with feeling empathy for the bad guy. In fact, I feel most villains are often better if there’s something that makes them relatable – a family man serial killer, a warlord who wants to save the universe by vaporizing half of it, a goateed Kryptonian set on destroying Earth to make a new home for his own people. The world of comic baddies is as interesting as it is diverse, and I’m always happy to see them play out onscreen.
But in the case of Joker, the filmmakers seem to want us to cheer the bad guy on, excusing his horrendous behavior because he’s had a rough go of things, and his pathway to finding himself is by slaughtering others. And… it just doesn’t work for me.
Joker is a very well-made movie, with brilliant acting, and a completely awful message for its viewers. As cinematic art, it’s a stunning project to not just watch but study, if only for Phoenix’s iconic portrayal of the DC Comics villain. It’s a performance that stands alongside those of both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, proving once again that Joker may be the most complex of all comic book characters. But as a movie? It’s a grotesque look at the seedy underbelly of humanity with a horrible message that bullies deserve to die – and killing them is completely justified. And, frankly, I hate that.