Published Sep 11, 2019When the guy who created The Hangover trilogy signed up to direct a comic book movie, who could have ever guessed it would lead to something as dark and disturbing as Joker? The clown from the DC universe has long been one of the most sinister comic book villains, but Joker goes all-in by portraying the character as a mentally ill outcast who lashes out against a system that abandoned him.
Director Todd Phillips finds the skin-crawling middle ground between sympathy and revulsion, as Joker takes the audience directly into the sad, lonely life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). He's working as a clown-for-hire, living in a grimy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and becoming fixated on the abrasively cheerful talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
Arthur is violently assaulted twice, loses the funding for his mental health treatments, and begins stalking his neighbour Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). Oh, and he's got a nervous condition that makes him laugh maniacally when he's stressed out — which sounds like it might be funny, except it really isn't.
Empathizing with a sad, self-pitying killer is a sketchy prospect in our world of incels and mass shooters, but Joker pulls it off, thanks to Phoenix's masterfully nuanced performance. He slips in and out of psychosis, prancing flamboyantly one moment and lashing out angrily the next. He shows glimmers of true caring alongside explosions of violence, both of which Phoenix sells with a frenzied energy. Even when Joker ventures into morally murky territory, it feels grimly realistic.
Throw in a jarring avant-classical score and lots of dingy, dimly lit locations, and Joker is a bit like a blockbuster art film. It alludes to numerous hot-button issues — mental health, violent misogyny, a class uprising against the one percent — and yet it feels like a private tragedy rather than a political statement. It's shocking and upsetting, which is both what makes it so brilliant and so uncomfortable to watch.