One of the more fiendishly clever choices Christopher Nolan made in his masterful middle Batman movie, The Dark Knight, was to clown on the very idea of “motivation” for his villain. Heath Ledger’s unforgettable version of The Joker, a prowling nihilist terrorist in rotting makeup, kept offering different explanations for the distorted scar-tissue grin cut across his face — and it’s only on the second time around, when his story changes completely, that we realize, “oh wait, he’s improvising, not unburdening.” Nolan may have lifted the idea from Alan Moore’s seminal “The Killing Joke,” which cooked up a tragic backstory for the Clown Prince of Crime, then hedged it with a wink. But in The Dark Knight, this slipperiness becomes a joke at the expense of origin stories themselves. Batman, in this cinematic world, is a product of trauma and loss, a hero born from his issues. The Joker, seemingly, just is.
Directed with striking intensity and concentration by Todd Phillips, Joker is set in 1981 in a gritty, grimy Gotham City, 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 (Joaquin Phoenix), 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. He lives with his elderly, ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in a rat-nest apartment. And spends his time inhabiting 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 seemingly looks like he just stepped out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. No one really working today delivers the kind of meticulously detailed psychotic breakdowns like he does. It’s a raw, festering wound of a performance with a fascinating physical prowess; his physicality seemingly like an orchestra, so finely tuned, that it’s nothing short of enchanting.
Arthur is a man regularly seized by attacks of uncontrollable laughter, the product of a rare medical condition that makes him even more of a pariah than he is already. Phoenix brings 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 single mom neighbor (Zazie Beetz) who offers a faint chance at real connection; it all hinging on the finger-to-the-temple gesture from Taxi Driver. There’s 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 well, as Murry Franklin, a popular late-night TV host who becomes Arthur’s obsession and his anathema. That inspired casting choice, a very explicit nod to The King of Comedy, is merely one respect in which the movie’s grittily realistic Gotham feels (maybe too much) indebted to Martin Scorsese’s New York. (Scorsese at one point considered signing on to executive produce.)
Along the way, Phillips does take his time nudging various pieces of the Batman mythology into position: a mention of Arkham here, a glimpse of the billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) there. 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 a cracked-mirror reflection of the hostility and resentment that colors so much American horror, the massacres committed by armed young men — a story of self-actualization through violence where its protagonist could be, depending on who you ask, an indictment or a mascot of the incel movement. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver make a valid point about the way our culture ignores mental illness and those living with it. (It’s after Gotham cuts social services, severing Arthur’s access to medication and counseling, that things get bloody.) But most of all, the movie lets those rich ideas swirl around Phoenix, who just keeps laughing and seething and dancing and laughing and falling apart and laughing again. Phillips and his cinematographer Lawrence Sher (who does fantastic work with his refined and rich color palette) hold the camera tight on their star, following him down long hallways from behind and often shooting him in slow-motion, while Hildur Guðnadóttir’s chilling, mournful, cello-centric score haunts in the background. (All those elements come together brilliantly in the “bathroom dance” scene which features one of the film’s most indelible images and is, frankly, just one of the year’s best scenes so far.)
But with all the novelty and craft, Joker can at times feel like Phillips is just skillfully mimicking the look and vibe of the classics of alienation, with the occasional hollow moment. But then again, it’s also quite gripping and for being attached to the DC brand, Joker seems insulated from any franchise master plans. There are no bam-pow fisticuffs, and no CGI fireworks either; the only special effect is Phoenix, twisting his limbs and soul into nightmarish new shapes. Phillips builds the whole movie around his powerhouse lead performer’s emaciated frame (the actor shed fifty-two pounds for the role). This may be the first ripped-from-the-comics spectacle that’s also, essentially, a one-man show.
A dark realist thriller in a market of many disposable comic-book drags is nothing to scoff at. And Joker is hardly the first movie inspired by comic-book characters to make a bid for high seriousness. Black Panther snagged a few Academy Awards earlier this year, and Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar. But as we sit in the film’s final moments, as serious as they may be, you begin to ponder a bit. Maybe that other Joker had it all right: origins are a joke. Lead by an astonishing, maniacal Joaquin Phoenix, Joker might have its hollow moments, but it’s ultimately a taut, nihilistic, viscously striking psychodrama that lingers heavily.