Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Origin stories are terribly difficult to execute. They have become so trite, overwrought and excruciatingly boring that many filmmakers in the “superhero” genre have abandoned them all together in favor of immediate action. Losing the origin story often means losing a piece of what made that character human. Enter Joker, Todd Phillips’ admirable attempt at emulating Martin Scorsese films of the late 70’s-early 80’s in the guise of a supervillain origin story. Although, the reverse is perhaps more fair to the movies foundations rather than its execution because this is first and foremost a fantastic origin story. Whether it’s stylistic homages function as blatant rip-offs or loving odes is of little concern when the story at its center is such an unnerving downward spiral. The Joker has often been presented as an enigma in Batman mythology, only the bravest writers are willing to tackle his beginnings. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, deftly convey a feeling of psychotic-melancholy that does such an enigmatic and frankly controversial character incredible justice.
The opening scene of the film is brilliant. The titular character, who begins the film known as Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), works as a struggling stand-up comedian and full-time street clown until he is beaten up needlessly by a group of teenagers. The world is getting much more difficult for people like Fleck, awkward, strange-looking and uncontrollably sinister. He radiates a discomfort in his own existence and to Phoenix’s credit it’s not an easy role to sell, there are even moments in the beginning where I wasn’t quite sure if he was going to pull it off, however, as the film continues Phoenix disappears completely from the screen and only Fleck remains. The performance is absolutely transporting, when the transformation is complete and Fleck smiles wickedly through a face covered in makeup, it feels not only narratively satisfying but frighteningly inevitable.
Not all the performances are up to par with the powerhouse acting at the center. Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) is frustratingly underwhelming. Her character has such a firm psychological grip over Arthur but you’d never guess that from Conroy’s performance. There are other side-characters who are more successful. The King of Comedy himself, Robert De Niro, plays Fleck’s comedian-hero Murray Franklin. From Fleck’s perspective Murray is exactly the kind of problem society needs to remedy, a man whose compassion is limited for those only who adore him and people who continue to endure his vision for the world. The climactic scene involving De Niro and Phoenix, face to face, a table away from each other is an extraordinary highlight of the film; the tension is boiling and the performances are charged with a fiery vitriol between the two actors. The conclusion is the film’s strongest section, the last thirty minutes are gloriously deranged, our culture is put on blast, the Joker can be held responsible for his final decision, but he cannot be blamed for the ensuing madness. The city was primed for him they just needed someone to vocalize their collective frustrations. Some may find this philosophy unpalatable but I dare anyone to say Joker couldn’t happen, there has never been an origin story so feasible and realistic, it’s not a horror movie but it is a horror.
There is a game-changing twist about halfway through the narrative that is wildly telegraphed and annoying, only because Phillips doesn’t trust the audience to “get it”, which felt slightly disingenuous and condescending. It left a nasty little taste in my mouth but luckily the film has continuous energy, never allowing itself a moment to stop and rationalize, because much like the character, if it were to do that, the ending might look very different. Fleck could’ve been saved. That is the film’s mercurial sadness. Some will argue that Fleck achieves his freedom, and perhaps he does, but his freedom is so depraved, broken and dejected can it even classify as a victory?
The conversation this film has spawned is an important one. The public is becoming completely disenfranchised with the psychology of evil and growing increasingly unwilling to own the responsibility that we have helped foster a pervasive wickedness in our culture. Yes, it’s the rich. Yes, it’s his loneliness and isolation. Yes, it’s his unchecked mental illness. The real tragedy, however, is the herd he slips into. The people inhabiting this world display no interest in helping Fleck. The audiences he performs in front of laugh not at his jokes but at the prospect of his very existence. Joker will be a film of immense controversy until the point when all the smoke clears and we can acknowledge the film as an incredible entry into one of the most important modern mythologies: that of superheroes and the villains who haunt them.