‘Joker’s’ dark themes speak to 2019 with a mesmerizing Joaquin Phoenix
If you are a journalist covering the Venice International Film Festival, you go into the experience accepting a few basic ground rules. You will drink bellinis and swat away mosquitoes. You will stand in long but generally fast-moving lines in sometimes unendurable heat. And you will be freed, at least temporarily, from the obligations of watching and writing about comic-book movies.
I say this not to show any disdain for comic-book movies, but only to point out the well-established seasonal logic by which the film industry typically operates. The summer — the designated stomping ground for superheroes and super-villains — has finally passed, making way for the fall and its traditional bounty of ascetic art films, spit-shined prestige pictures and other subspecies of cinema that have no place in the Marvel and DC Comics universes.
That changed Saturday, when Venice hosted the much-anticipated world premiere of “Joker,” the fastidiously grim new movie starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman’s greatest and most defiantly unhinged nemesis. Its high-profile fall premieres (it will screen next at the Toronto International Film Festival before its release Oct. 4 through Warner Bros.) are clearly meant to signal its artistic ambition and seriousness of intent, to reassure you that what you are about to experience will be anything but business as usual.
That may be the only respect in which this movie could possibly be thought of as reassuring. Directed with striking intensity and concentration by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” movies, “War Dogs”), “Joker” is a dark, brooding and psychologically plausible origin story, a vision of cartoon sociopathy made flesh. It unfolds in a gritty Gotham City circa 1981, where Batman is nowhere to be seen and the air is thick with the stench of garbage and social unrest. The city is hard and ugly and mean as hell, a place at war with itself. And its most embattled citizen may well be Arthur Fleck, a heavily medicated sad sack who, when he’s not getting beat up on his job as a sign-waving street clown, aspires to become a standup comedian.
With ‘Joker,’ director Todd Phillips gives the comic-book movie a dark new Scorsese-esque spin.
Mainly, though, Arthur inhabits a realm of broken dreams, deep-seated traumas and increasingly warped, violent fantasies. Which is another way of saying that he is the latest troubled soul to be played by Phoenix, who delivers the kind of meticulously detailed psychotic breakdown that he does better than just about any American actor now working. It’s a raw, festering wound of a performance that flirts with virtuosity and redundancy alike; when you see Arthur in the dingy apartment he shares with his mother (Frances Conroy), you may be reminded less of Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero than of Phoenix’s superb work in “You Were Never Really Here.”
That title might also suit Arthur Fleck, who initially stumbles through life almost entirely unseen — but not unheard. Arthur is regularly seized by paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, the product of a rare medical condition that makes him even more of a pariah than he is already. Phoenix wrings a lot of variations on that laugh: Sometimes it’s forced and aggressive, like a hacking cough, and sometimes it’s high and lilting, the effect of which is somehow even more unnerving. But his laughter also has a painfully poignant undertow: It’s as if Arthur, who longs to make the people around him laugh, were involuntarily compensating for his failure to do so.
Those people drift in and out of his orbit, each one pushing him a step further toward his inevitable transformation. There are his fellow clowns at work, most of whom treat him abominably. There’s a down-the-hall neighbor (Zazie Beetz) who flashes him a sympathetic smile, and three young men in suits who find themselves alone with Arthur at a low point and bring him even lower. Robert De Niro turns up as Murray Franklin, a popular late-night TV host who becomes Arthur’s obsession and his bête noir. That inspired casting choice, an explicit nod to “The King of Comedy,” is merely one respect in which the movie’s grittily realistic Gotham feels indebted to Martin Scorsese’s New York. (Scorsese, who will soon return to his gangland roots with De Niro in “The Irishman,” at one point considered signing on as an executive producer on “Joker.”)
Along the way, Phillips, drawing loose inspiration from the 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke,” takes his time nudging various pieces of the Batman mythology into position: a mention of Arkham Asylum here, a glimpse of the billionaire Thomas Wayne there. (He is played, with lofty patrician indifference, by Brett Cullen.) But the director also clearly has an eye on America circa 2019; among other things, “Joker” morphs into a panorama of urban decay and human chaos: It’s got class warfare, unspoken racial animus and a protagonist who could be either an indictment or a mascot of the incel movement.
The movie allows these rich ideas and associations to swirl around Phoenix, who just keeps laughing and seething and dancing and laughing and falling apart and laughing some more. Phillips holds the camera tight on his star, sometimes following him down long hallways from behind and often shooting him in slow-motion, while a cellist saws away mournfully in the background. He lets us feel the physicality of Phoenix’s performance, the way his rib bones seem to protrude like daggers from his emaciated frame (the actor shed 52 pounds for the role). He makes sure we note the incremental shifts in the Joker’s clown makeup, complete with blue tear streaks and blood-red rictus grin.
New “Joker” trailer promises a comic-book movie unlike anything fans have seen before, with Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character.
A dark realist thriller in comic-book drag — or to put it another way, a Hollywood entertainment willing to take its time as it builds tension and brims with ideas — is nothing to scoff at. Still, there are times when your admiration for the filmmaking may blur into the movie’s own obvious admiration for itself. The mounting violence is intensely unpleasant, shocking if not particularly surprising; in scene after scene, the buildup is so agonizingly drawn out that you’re unsure whether the movie is depicting or embracing its protagonist’s cruelty. Perhaps the distinction matters less than we like to think.
“Joker” is hardly the first movie inspired by comic-book characters to make a bid for high seriousness. “Black Panther” nabbed a slew of Academy Awards earlier this year, and Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his own indelibly terrifying performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” It will be fascinating to see what that 2008 movie’s detractors, some of whom found it too sadistic and ponderous by half, make of the even darker and more despairing “Joker.” Certainly, there will be much more to say about this bleak, troubling and damnably accomplished movie before and after it reaches theaters, but for now, it’s already clear that this clown didn’t come to play.
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