Dark, depressing and disturbing, Joker is everything it promises to be—except as unpredictable as its title character. Featuring an immersive, award-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix and a bleak, grounded portrayal of one of the world’s most famous fictional villains, writer/director Todd Phillips allows audiences into the grim, depressing descent into madness facing one Arthur Fleck.
Suffering from acute mental illness and marginalized by a society already decaying from the inside, Fleck is almost a pitiful character—one you almost feel compassion for until you remind yourself just how depraved he really is. Phillips, best known for making comedies such as The Hangover and Old School, goes all in on the character, willing to make him the protagonist without apologizing, or defending, his behavior.
While inherently a Batman story only without, and predating, the Dark Knight—Bruce Wayne has a small presence, but only as a child—Joker is best observed as a psychological drama. There are no capes or maniacal plots and certainly no heroes here, only Fleck and his twisted, warped mind spinning out of control.
At the center of it all is Joaquim Phoenix, acting as if there is no one else in the room—and often there isn’t. Phoenix, scrawny to the point of unhealthy, seemingly twisted as physically as much as he is mentally, delivers a fantastic performance, reveling in today’s version of Taxi Driver (oh, and Robert De Niro is in this movie, too)—which is oh so fittingly a comic book movie.
It’s hard, and unfair, to compare Phoenix’s Joker to other Jokers before him; from Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger and, well, yes, Jared Leto, each have played the role a different way, and suited for the film around them. Phillip’s Joker is a drama about a world driven mad by corruption and hate, and one man who sees himself as the match to burn it all down.
Phoenix strikes the match.
The movie works on many levels, perhaps least so as an indictment on society—though set several decades ago, it’s not hard to see the obvious (perhaps overly obvious) parallels to the trouble facing society today, and the loners left behind who sometimes lash out in horrendous ways. But it’s a well-paced, well-made production about a disturbed man in an increasingly disturbed society. Phillip’s portrayal of a disintegrating Gotham is one of the best depictions of the city yet.
The only real disappointment is that everything, as Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker would say, goes according to plan. For such an unpredictable character—and truly, the Joker is a unreliable narrative, as it’s often unclear exactly what is real and what is in his head (is any of it real?)—Joker is largely predictable, the shocks not entirely unexpected, the plot developments only anticipated. Maybe the film falls victim to the fact that, even if this story is meant to be a standalone disconnected from and not reliant on any Batman plotline, it is indeed a Joker origin story, and Joker origin stories can only go in so many directions. Nonetheless, I left the film wanting just a little bit more, something completely unexpected and out of left field.
Joker is a satisfyingly disturbed drama that deserves attention, even without Phoenix’s transformative performance. Its story unfolds largely the way you expect it to, a shame, but then again, the movie is more about the inner workings of a madman’s brain, not the events that surround him.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.