Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is a pair of bloodshot, blaring eyes screaming, crying, and cackling in your face. Right in your face. For two hours. Though less happens here, it has that nonstop intensity we find in “Natural Born Killers” and “Fight Club.” By the end of the screening, I was exhausted, assuming I would not ever watch the movie again. The greatness of the movie is in one thing: Joaquin Phoenix, who is so strong as Arthur Fleck aka The Joker that all the other parts of the film are conscious of their irrelevance. Perhaps a better title would be “Joaquin.” Or “Dark Phoenix.”
It is hard to classify Phoenix’s many performances. The most memorable seem to have an anarchic mind pushing against a tightly-structured bizarro world, as in “You Were Never Really Here,” “The Master,” “Inherent Vice,” and “The Village.” Or, in an insecure heart seeking control while performing before masses of consumers, as in “Her,” “Walk the Line,” and “Gladiator.”
In this virtuoso performance, he twists his sinews enough to make his shoulder blades protrude like sharp plates trying to break out of his skin. His sharp eyes always reveal sorrow, yet he develops a happy ambivalence toward whatever will hit him next. He has this embarrassing giggle, that with each guffaw alternates between streams of joy and sadness yet reveals no emotion. When he explodes, his gestures reveal the approaching boom, yet it is always jarring. Whether he bashes his head against a glass or fires his gun or stabs someone with his scissors, it always shocks.
Phoenix’s Joker is neither a hero nor an antihero, as there is nothing heroic about him, regardless of the following he inspires. Rather, he is an anti-villain. In the satire of “Natural Born Killers,” a dominating system of markets and media invite insanity as serial killers become superstars. In the cynicism of “Fight Club,” a schizophrenic savant recruits men to find their masculinity as training for organized anarchy against the consumer corporatization and monetization of all life. In all three films, the world is changing, and most people are struggling to keep pace while a select few control it.
Given few opportunities and fewer answers, Arthur is a man deciding that performance is the key to adulation, which is the path to the validation he never received, as a clown working for a temp agency. He is of awkward emaciated posture, learning social queues not by observation, but by noting them in the spiral notebook he keeps in his back pocket.
At home, he watches talk shows with his withering mother (Francis Conroy). She waits each day and night for a letter that will never come from her former employer, mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, father of you-know-who. Wayne seeks to run the three-circus Gotham machine, in which government employees—whether police officers with theme park haircuts or institution automatons caged behind desks—repeat the same monologue for each interaction, never listening to cries for help. The class system that sustains Gotham is familiar: tuxedos at operas and graffiti on trains. When an elite invites one of society’s dregs into their world, it is for zoo-animal observation and mockery. When someone crosses the boundary from one zone into the other—with or without permission—blood will flow.
There are two “straight man” characters among all of the eccentrics. One is his neighbor Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), who becomes our eyes in his world for what we see in him and what he sees in us. He has immediate romantic feelings for her that may or may not find fulfillment somewhere in the mix between his daydreams, his hallucinations, and reality. The other, a little boy behind a fence (Dante Pereira-Olson), becomes a different type of clown long after the film ends, because of a series of events Fleck ignited.
Viewers of “Joker,” whether comic book connoisseurs, superhero fans, or Friday night film buffs, will wait for the moment Arthur will go full Joker. From one perspective, as a minute peg in a giant mosaic, finding no other way to be human, he already is the Joker. Or, he becomes Joker when he discovers that life has been betraying him. Or, he becomes the Joker when he becomes Gotham’s Guy Fawkes, inspiring scores to don a clown’s mask to spread violent anarchy against the imposing structures.
In that spirit of Guy Fawkes, "Joker"'s anti-villain finds his long-sought validation. After a collision, he smudges the blood from his gums across his face to form a crooked smile. He failed as a temp-clown. He failed as a stand-up comic. He failed as a magician. He failed as a television show guest. He fails as a human. But he succeeds as a mask, a symbol, a feeling. That is the point and structure of the film. It has no depth. Its world is a circus, neither of Pagliacci nor John Wayne Gacy nor Stephen King’s “It.” In its world, you are ringmaster or a performer. There is nothing—no emotion, no hope, no substance—in between.
The film—like all the previous cinematic Jokers—makes no attempts at redeeming the iconic character. It comes close to seeking our support but stops very short of doing so. At its most sympathetic, it suggests he's in a world larger than him, tougher than him, ahead of him, one that is squeezing and crushing him, and of his various attempts at getting love or adulation, he can only succeed as Joker.
This film is the child of Fellini, Scorsese, and Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down.” Todd Phillips has received a lot of criticism for choosing to enter Scorsese’s streets without reaching Scorsese’s heights. That is a compliment to his film rather than a condemnation. An obvious influence, “Taxi Driver” was hailed as an instant classic and has the benefit of 40 years of admiration following it. Watching Phillips’ shift from lowball comedy to highbrow drama recalls all those comedians who made the same transition in front of the camera.
So, is this film going to inspire riots and violence? I doubt it will have any more social impact than “Natural Born Killers” or “Fight Club.” Its central character is an anarchist, and anarchy is the most mindless and least energetic of social protests. In "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle sees the world as corrupt and decides he must save it by saving a girl from the pimp who controls her. He is ultimately a very different character than Arthur Fleck, who could have lived a happy life if his alleged father had just given him a pat on the back. At most, I suspect it will—like “V for Vendetta”—inspire the sale of a whole lot of masks. The cheap kind. With the rubber string that breaks.