There have been five portrayals of the Joker on the big screen, but there has never been a film quite like “Joker.” Director Todd Phillips (yes, the same director of “The Hangover” trilogy) has concocted a sinister blend of laughter, terror and discomfort that makes the most of the film’s two-hour runtime. Anchored by an unbelievable, tour-de-force performance by Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character, “Joker” is a tight, gripping film that reflects on society’s wealth gap while establishing a worthy backstory for the Clown Prince of Crime.
The film throws us into the life of the deeply troubled Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), an outcast in Gotham City who works as a clown during the day and a struggling stand-up comic at night. After several traumatic encounters involving his mother (Frances Conroy), politician Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Arthur is left isolated and bitter. Rather than wallow in his depression, he chooses to embrace a new identity, and he begins a slow descent into the iconic Batman villain.
I can’t think of many performances that are as mesmerizing as Phoenix’s in “Joker.” Against all odds, he delivers such a new rendition of the character we know and love that a comparison of his portrayal to Jack Nicholson’s, Jared Leto’s or even Heath Ledger’s feels inappropriate. Arthur is not an easy character to portray; he’s socially awkward, delusional and has an eerie, uncontrollable laughing disorder. Nonetheless, Phoenix never seems like he’s playing a character; he disappears into the role entirely and even manages to bring out some humanity in the psychopathic clown killer. While I never rooted for Arthur’s violence (a concept that has sparked controversy), I understood his motivations as he spiraled into madness.
While Phoenix’s performance likely could have carried the film on its own, “Joker” is more than just its protagonist. De Niro is electric as Murray, as he brings gravitas and swagger to the talk show host. De Niro and Phoenix work off of each other brilliantly, and their interactions result in some of the film’s finest moments. Phillips smartly chose to frame the film around Murray’s show, “Live! With Murray Franklin,” which grounds Arthur in the world of Gotham and thankfully gives us more De Niro.
Speaking of De Niro, “Joker” draws inspiration from several of filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s quintessential works starring the actor, particularly “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” The ties to “Taxi Driver” are especially strong: Arthur and Travis Bickle (De Niro) are both loners on the outskirts of society who resort to violence as a means to an end. However, “Joker” never feels derivative; it’s very much its own thing, and not just because it adds a comic book spin on Scorsese’s works.
The director of “The Hangover” may seem like an unlikely candidate to direct a gritty film like “Joker,” but the film shows how much his craft has changed and improved in a 10-year span. Phillips maintains a distinct, sinister tone throughout the film, but he makes sure that every scene is captivating. The film is two hours long, and Phillips doesn’t pull any punches with his runtime. Although he dips in the well of experimentalism, every scene feels necessary and helps forge Arthur’s character in some regard.
The controversy revolving around “Joker” may push you away, and the film is probably not for all audiences. Along with a few graphic violent scenes, the entire movie is creepy and uncomfortable, and it will likely leave you on edge. However, that uneasiness is the objective of the film. Previously, the Joker was depicted as a man who was dropped in a vat of acid and became a killer clown. With “Joker,” Phillips exhibits that under the right circumstances, a Joker could emerge in our own society, which is a terrifying and uncomfortable concept.
At this point in our comic book-saturated society, it’s challenging to come out with something original and surprising, but Phillips and Phoenix have done just that. “Joker” is immensely satisfying, and it carefully crafts its titular character without outwearing its welcome. At one point in the film, Arthur says that he used to think his life was a tragedy, but now he realizes it’s a comedy. Indeed, the only tragedy to spur from “Joker” is that we may not see this iteration of the Joker again on screen. Don’t listen to the haters: go to the theater and experience “Joker.” Phillips’ latest may not feature Zach Galifianakis and a tiger, but it’s an absolute sight to be seen.