Todd Phillips has primarily stuck to bawdy comedies, starting with Old School, The Hangover films then to Due Date. He surprised me with 2016 quasi comic true story about gun runners with War Dogs, which I felt was one of 2016’s best films. Now, comes Joker, an origins story of Arthur Fleck, who later would become Batman’s arch nemesis, Joker as played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix. But if you are expecting a flashy, gadget infused action-fest Joker is not the film for you. If you are wanting a dark, grimy deeply disturbing film then you will love Joker.
Joker is not a feel good film, that is for sure. Arthur Fleck is a guy forgotten about by society. Mistreated and kicked aside, he struggles to find work while he takes care of his elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) in their dilapidated apartment. Arthur is seeing a psychiatrist (Sharon Washington) and she advises him to keep a journal and write whatever ails him on a daily basis. Not only does this not really help him, it facilitates his descent into utter madness and murder. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Joker is a character study of one man and is even more about mental illness. Director Phillips is wise to steer away from the trappings of previous super hero films with all of the technical wizardry and keep it simple. Tell a story about characters and let these characters evolve without suffocating under a mountain of visual effects. This is a bare bones story with a very small budget and the film looks terrific. Shot entirely on location in New York City and in New Jersey, Phillips makes good use of the dirty and garbage filled streets (there is a garbage worker’s strike that has been written into the film’s plot).
Director Phillips has co-written the script with Scott Silver (who wrote the terrific 2010 film, The Fighter) and they have fleshed out a truly creepy and unnerving character in Arthur Fleck. I mean, they have REALLY fleshed him out. This is one sick dude. At first, I felt sorry for him. Most people would. At first, he seems like a relatively normal person, but he lets society get the better him. Rather than fight back he accepts his fate, so to speak and Joker, the villain, is born.
Without revealing any spoilers, Phillips and Stone do a great job of explaining Arthur Fleck while incorporating the Wayne family and how they are connected to the Flecks. There is a very oddly affecting scene between a very young Bruce Wayne and Arthur that made my flesh crawl. In fact, there is a plethora of flesh crawling scenes in Joker. There is a stark difference between the “real” world of Arkham City and Arthur’s view of the world. He sees himself as a comedian but is mocked by just about everyone, including a Johnny Carson-like talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro).
Much has been said about the violence of Joker. To be honest, there is not that much violence in this film. There are a few scenes of violence, one of them very graphic but overall this is a dramatic character study with an Oscar worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix who dials into Joker with utter perfection. He never puts one foot wrong with his performance and never overplays the character, either. He is spot on. I also liked his relationship with his neighbor, Sophie Drumond (Zazie Beetz) who he takes a liking to. It is deftly handled and will surprise you, hopefully.
Joker is a terrific film. It really is. It is why we go to the movies. Smartly written and not exploitative about mental illness, Phillips has crafted a very disturbing, intelligent and ultimately satisfying film. As I said earlier, this is not for everyone. If you are looking for a effects laden, action packed film with a ton of production values, Joker is not your bag. However, for a truly odd and troubling film about the creation of one of the most diabolical villains in comic book history, then Joker is the film to watch. Hopefully, the Academy will not overlook this film at Oscar nomination time.
Joker – ****3/4 out of 5
Joker – Rated R for language and graphic violence
Joker – Run time is 122 minutes
Joker is now playing at your local theaters. Check you local listings for times and locations.