There was a time when it felt wrong to have anyone portray an iconic character more than once in a generation on the screen.
It was 21 years from the time of Cesar Romero’s hysterical, antic portrayal of the Joker until Jack Nicholson took a much darker approach. We then had to wait 19 years until Heath Ledger made the character the great Agent of Chaos (and received a posthumous Oscar for his performance).*
Of course, somewhere in the past 20 years or so, Hollywood gave up any semblance of sanctity it once had toward classics and iconic performances. So within 8 years of Ledger’s mind-blowing turn as Joker, we had Jared Leto’s poor impersonation.
Just like that, the Joker had become a gimmick instead of a meaningful character.
And only 3 years later, we have yet another gimmick.
But this time it works.
There are few actors I trust as much as Joaquin Phoenix. My first memory of him is as Commodus in Gladiator. I didn’t know who he was other than the brother of River, but I was entranced. The depth of cowardice, self-hatred, and need for acceptance bubbling up under Commodus’ attempts to appear honorable and regal is the kind of performance few actors are capable of pulling off.
Yet here was Phoenix, making it look easy while going toe-to-toe with peak Russell Crowe (in Crowe’s Oscar-Winning performance, nonetheless).
So despite my disgust upon hearing the Joker was resurfacing on the big screen again, I quickly dropped my apprehension when hearing he would be played by Phoenix.
He doesn’t disappoint.
The trailers of Joker tease a film that could be the cousin of Taxi Driver. As it turns out, it’s not just a tease.
From the opening scene all feelings of “comic book movie” disappear. The only other time I can remember feeling similarly is during the opening heist of The Dark Knight. This is a good sign.
But where The Dark Knight pulls us into excitement reminiscent of Heat, Joker evokes depression and madness immediately. The descent has begun.
While watching Joker I couldn’t escape feeling the weight of misery and disgust. There is very little about this movie that is entertaining.
And I couldn’t look away.
The comparisons to Taxi Driver are apt so far as the setting, but the transformation of Arthur Fleck is much darker and hopeless than Travis Bickle. With Bickle we are given reminders that there are still some traces of good within. Fleck occasionally reaches the surface for air, only to have his head stepped on.
Joker feels less like a story and more like voyeurism. Most of the damage has been done to Fleck over the years, what we are witnessing is the final breaking. Two hours of emotional, physical, and mental torment that completes the lifelong journey of someone losing their soul.
I’ll repeat: There is nothing entertaining about this movie.
But it is mesmerizing.
In regards to the filmmaking, director Todd Phillips has delivered a sort of masterpiece. There is no break in the immersion. As a director known for reaching the heights of frat-boy comedy (Old School, The Hangover), Phillips delivers a film few have believed he was capable of. Occasionally there were a few laughs in the theater, but it felt more as if someone wanted to believe they were watching something other than what was on screen. I imagine that, despite the commercial appeal, few people are getting what they came for.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing.
The setting of the early 80s, depressed Gotham emulates 1970s New York and will draw memories about the city of French Connection as much as it does Taxi Driver. This is a city where hope is all but gone and the people are just surviving, waiting for someone to give them the excuse to turn on each other.
*WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD*
Of course, that is exactly what Fleck gives them when he finally embraces the darkness inside him. He becomes a symbol to the oppressed and overlooked, inspiring them to rise up, fight back, and inflict their pain upon others.
By the third act, the murders Fleck has committed have become the tipping point of rage in the city. Riots and looting become standard fare by people in clown masks, and this is all before Fleck even reveals himself.
It’s not because he is biding his time either. He simply doesn’t care.
As we witness Fleck discovering his own sordid history, memories which he had blocked out, we see him letting go of any belief he ever had.
“All I have is dark thoughts” he muses at one point. Indeed. And it’s no wonder why.
Along with Arthur, we discover that he is a man without an identity. Abandoned before he was cognizant, adopted into a house of horrors, and grown into a man whose every waking moment is filled with the blackest pain of loneliness and meaninglessness. The only shred of humanity that keeps him trying is a relationship with his mother, who is a dying psychotic.
The lies his mother has told him formed his only foundation of humanity, which is why, as soon as they are uncovered, Fleck ceases to exist. All that is left is Joker.
The transformation is exquisitely performed by Phoenix (who will easily, and deservedly, get a nomination for this) and handled by Phillips. So much so, that in the third act, which easily could have turned into a cheap “eat the rich” kind of socialist message, we remain transfixed without feeling cheated.
When the Joker finally reveals himself on the Murray Franklin show (Franklin is depicted by an energetic Robert de Niro), we get the best scene of the movie. We also see the madness he inspires break out completely.
After killing Murray on live television, Joker is arrested and brought out into the chaos of the streets. His view is ours as riots swarm every street. Because Joker doesn’t care, we don’t much either. We are simply onlookers, fascinated by the events but struggling to emotionally connect to them. Phillips deftly considers this, knowing that, even though we know why these riots are happening, they don’t matter to us. This isn’t a time to preach or make a point, because Joker cares about none of those things.
His only care is to matter. To be seen. And so we finish the film with the highlight of Fleck’s life. Him, standing on top of a vehicle with the city burning around him, being cheered on by thousands as he begins to dance.
It would look like joy, if only he were capable.
In The Dark Knight Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) remarks about Batman, “he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one we need right now.”
Remaining Batman’s opposite, Joker isn’t the movie we need, or even want. But it is exactly what the origin of a murdering, nihilistic, soulless villain deserves.
*No one here wants to overlook the fantastic voice work of Mark Hamill as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series or the Arkham games, but animation and games are granted an exception in this area as a rule.