Few films are electric enough to make headlines before audiences even see them. Enter “Joker,” which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, a rare honor for a superhero origin story, though its tone is more reminiscent of the Scorsese masterpieces “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The King of Comedy” (1982).
It has since become a media lightning rod as to whether the R-rated film would inspire copycat violence like the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooter at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? “Joker” can’t answer that chicken-and-egg, but it brilliantly shows a man crack.
As the film opens nationwide this weekend, it delivers a disturbing experience that is so terrifyingly real that it is sure to divide audiences. Don’t expect a Marvel action flick for kids. This is a gritty character study, one where fans and critics can all agree on one thing: Joaquin Phoenix could laugh all the way to the Oscars.
Based on the graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke” (1988), the plot follows Arthur Fleck, a freelance clown who lives with his aging mother in 1981 Gotham City. His mental condition includes random bursts of piercing laughter, causing him to try his hand at stand-up comedy like his late-night idol Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). But when society laughs him off life’s stage, he turns to crime.
By now, there have been numerous portrayals of the iconic Batman villain. Cesar Romero hammed it up in TV’s “Batman” (1966-1968), Jack Nicholson stole the show in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), Heath Ledger earned a posthumous Oscar in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008), and Jared Leto was upstaged by co-star Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” (2016).
Now, we get Phoenix, who despite publicity stunts (“I’m Still Here”) has proved to be one of our most gifted actors. He earned an Oscar nomination in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000), swung away in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002), won a Golden Globe as Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s “Walk the Line” (2005), earned his third Oscar nod exposing cults in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (2012) and fell in love with a computer in Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013).
In “Joker,” he is transfixing, rivaling Ledger as authentic rather than cartoonish. Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role, his ribs protruding from his emaciated body, but it’s more than just a physical transformation. His eyes burn with combustible danger, while his voice wheezes and gargles as he tries to control fits of laughter, covering his mouth with his arm and crying because he can’t stop cackling.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch, the type of humanistic portrait of a flawed anti-hero that is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination. In fact, it sticks with you so long after you leave the theater that you wouldn’t mind if he actually won.
Most of the credit belongs to Phoenix; the rest belongs to writer-director Todd Phillips, who is best known for hilarious frat-style comedies from “Old School” (2003) to “The Hangover” (2009). You might think it an odd transition to switch genres from broad-appeal comedy to origin-story tragedy, but like that old song “Tears of a Clown” — take a good look at his face, his smile is out of place.
Co-writing with Scott Silver (“The Fighter”), Phillips painstakingly paints Fleck as more than just an insane monster, but rather a pained individual in need of our sympathy. His mother (Frances Conroy) isn’t quite Norma Bates, but it’s enough to explain his afflictions. When his colleague (Glenn Fleshler) hands him a pistol, we know Chekhov’s Gun has to be fired. And when a romantic subplot with neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) starts to feel forced, a twist adds another layer.
As these character elements ultimately boil over into violence, we buy into the madness because every killing makes logical sense, leaving audiences morally conflicted. These victims obviously don’t deserve to die, but the script gives us plausible motives. These aren’t random acts of violence; they’re people who directly pick on him, cost him his job, even humiliate him in front of the masses.
It’s all shot in grim tones by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, with wardrobe by Mark Bridges, who uses a brown and burgundy palette where Fleck’s vests show he’s guarded. Backing it all is an unsettling score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (HBO’s “Chernobyl”) that should have been left to carry the film on its own, rather than an odd dance down a staircase set to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” Later choices fit better, from Cream’s “White Room” to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life.”
Where the entire exercise threatens to buckle under its own weight is the larger social commentary of the “have and have nots.” It’s an important and relevant theme, but it balloons into a revolution that’s not entirely earned, conflated with a connection to billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of Bruce Wayne. At first it feels contrived, but ultimately it allows for even more Batman tie-ins than you might initially expect, which I consider a net plus.
That said, don’t expect a typical superhero movie with post-credit teasers to the DC Extended Universe. This is a stand-alone character study in the vein of Scorsese, who was originally attached to produce. Phillips introduces an entire new generation to the finger gun of “Taxi Driver” (1976), the wall of TV monitors like “Network” (1976) and celebrity daydreams like “The King of Comedy” (1982), where DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin kidnapped his late-night TV hero (Jerry Lewis).
This time, DeNiro plays the reverse as the film builds to a shocking climax. It’s the type of cynical finale where I can totally understand if you walk out hating it (please don’t bring the kids) or blown away (agreeing that TV hosts shouldn’t poke fun at guests like “American Idol”). Either way, it has people talking, it’s made with cinematic fire, and it boasts a performance to haunt your dreams.
The question isn’t whether it’s dark; that’s a given. Instead, we must always ask: Did the filmmakers accomplish what they set out to do? If the goal was to tell a convincing origin story about an iconic villain, showing us why he became the way he is, this one nails the downward spiral. If you’re aghast at the violence, that’s life. If you’re worried it’s not faithful enough to the comics, why so serious?