Gritty film reimagines famed supervillain
Joaquin Phoenix owns the role of Arthur Fleck in Joker, a reinterpretation of the modern comic book movie.
October 10, 2019
The Clown Prince of Gotham struts onto the big screen once again in Joker, a bold and bleak reinterpretation of the modern comic book movie that is destined to send shockwaves through the genre.
Using gritty psychodramas like Taxi Driver and Blow Out as a blueprint, writer/director Todd Phillips tells a new origin story for the Batman baddie that draws on the character’s extensive mythology along with myriad other cinematic influences. While it may not be more than the sum of said influences, Phillips mines enough stylistic gold from past films to allow his dark character study to thrive on its own distinctive terms.
It’s 1981 and just like the mean streets of New York, Gotham City is plagued with rampant crime and abject poverty. Amongst its downtrodden citizens is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional clown who aspires for a career in stand-up comedy. Besides the presence of his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he shares a drab apartment, Fleck leads a distressingly lonely life exacerbated further by mental illness tenuously kept in check by seven different medications. After a pair of violent attacks against him, Fleck reaches a breaking point and vows to turn against the city that has turned its back against him his whole life.
Sporting a disturbingly gaunt frame and a creepy smile devoid of happiness, Phoenix’s performance is Joker’s primary selling point and it’s nearly impossible to imagine the film without it. Save a handful of supporting characters with a few scenes a piece, the two-hour runtime belongs almost entirely to Phoenix as he masterfully portrays Fleck’s slow descent into unbridled madness. His interpretation of this iconic character will no doubt draw comparisons to previous iterations, especially Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, but the details and nuances that Phoenix bring to his performance give us an entirely new angle on the supervillain.
It’s been said of the Joker character that the most unsettling aspect of his mythology is that he doesn’t have one set origin story; Ledger’s Joker even cycles through multiple anecdotes so we can’t be sure which is the truth. Phillips, then, is doing something quite daring here: cutting through the ambiguity and saddling this Joker with a fleshed-out tragedy that implicitly makes him more empathetic in the process. This choice may come across as thuddingly literal and obvious for some and while I admit most of the enjoyment to be had with the film is surface-level, it’s an admirable surface nonetheless.
Like his central character, Phillips is a gifted mimic as he overtly references films ranging from Chaplin’s Modern Times and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, in which Robert De Niro has much more screen time than he does here. Thanks to excellent cinematography by Lawrence Sher, the film has a larger-than-life scope that is at once overwhelming and intimate. While the script is overwritten and redundant at times, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver glimmer enough insight into this broken man’s psyche to make his journey a plausible one. In a world overrun with one superhero movie after another, Joker makes the case that we could use more told from the perspective of the supervillain.
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