Monsters aren’t created in a vacuum. There are outside forces of pressure and heat that bubble and churn to the point the monster is almost an inevitability.
That is the argument made by “Joker,” a gritty and effective character study of the origins of Batman’s arch nemesis.
This is probably the least comic-book “comic-book movie” ever, as writer/director Todd Phillips (with a writing assist from Scott Silver) shows us a bleak world devoid of heroes of any shape or form.
“Joker” is set in an early 1980s Gotham City evocative of New York City of the same era, where violence and crime were sidewalk occurrences as common as fire hydrants and newsstands. The easiest comparison to make in terms of the tone and progression of “Joker” is “Taxi Driver,” which is not exactly what we’ve come to expect from Phillips, who is best known for rowdy comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover” trilogy.
Our subject is the mentally and emotionally fragile Arthur Fleck. Arthur is played by Joaquin Phoenix, one of the most daring actors around who delivers Oscar-caliber performances anytime he works with a director willing to push him. In “Joker,” Phillips shoves him down an elevator shaft.
Phoenix lost an incredible amount of weight to play Arthur, a man with an array of mental health issues and a Tourette-like condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, which often makes him a target of derision and disgust.
Arthur is a devoted son to his home-bound mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and struggles to make ends meet as a for-hire clown. In spite of the world kicking him around, Arthur does have hopes and dreams that involve becoming a standup comedian and wooing his kindly neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz).
Arthur’s greatest dream would be to make it to the stage of a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro as a sort of proto-Johnny Carson. But in the world of “Joker,” dreams coming true is probably the worst thing that can happen.
As Arthur descends into madness, he’s not a sympathetic character as much as he is a pitiful one. Dread and unease soak through to this movie’s core and even as it culminates with violent, homicidal outbursts, the audience is never granted a feeling of relief or release.
The Joker becomes a rallying figure for the downtrodden and destitute of Gotham, but he seems almost bewildered with the attention. “I’m not political,” he says at one point. “I don’t believe in anything.”
This movie touches an exposed nerve in American culture here in 2019 and doesn’t let go; so much so, that police presence is being requested at movie theaters all around the country lest this movie inspire Joker wannabes to participate in violence and mayhem.
To me this movie is less about creating new jokers in society and more about the fact we have already been living for years under the assault of solitary, broken, demented men bringing bloodshed and horror to our schools, churches and city streets.
The punchline to the Joker’s ultimate joke is, “You get what you deserve.” The truly terrifying thing is he might be right.
“Joker” is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.
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