“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” —Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Who makes the monster, and where do they come from? We’ve been asking those questions for far too long and still have yet to find a satisfactory answer. And like an itch we can’t help but scratch, more only fails to bring relief.
Our current boogieman is the gunman — masked or otherwise — who haunts our schools, churches, shopping malls, concert venues, even movie theaters. Often they are white and male. Most act alone. All of them kill, some more than others, and for different stated reasons. But probably the same underlying one. Some were abused and lived long enough to hurt others; others lived perfectly healthy lives and wouldn’t hurt a fly. Until, that is, they gunned down 13 innocent lives.
They follow familiar patterns: Extensive journaling but an inability to communicate with others. They have minds that won’t sit still, spilling out thoughts like ticker tape with no release of emotion. They fixate on someone or something. Tragically, it is more often than not on a firearm.
We see it on the news, and we see it in the movies. Sometimes its real life that is soft, while other times, it’s the movies that try to put a shine on it. But peel back the surface, and you will find the same rot. “Life’s a tragedy when seen in close-up,” Charlie Chaplin once said, “But a comedy in long-shot.”
Send in the Joker, the latest take on the iconic Batman supervillain from writer/director Todd Phillips, co-writer Scott Silver, cinematographer Lawrence Sher, editor Jeff Groth, and Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role. Rare is the movie where talents and subject harmonize so well.
Joker does exist in the DC/Batman universe. Sometimes it feels like it’s next-door; other times, it feels like it’s on the front porch. If Joker has neighbors, then Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives between Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin — two more solitary souls, both portrayed by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy respectively. De Niro is also in Joker, as Murray Franklin, a popular talk show host with terrible monologues. Fleck also dreams of being a standup, but he has no knack, no work ethic, and no sense of humor. His day job as a rent-a-clown isn’t helping, despite feeling that he’s been put on this earth to make others smile. His mother calls him “Happy,” and as Fleck tells someone who isn’t listening, “It’s hard being happy all the time.”
Fleck’s mother, Peggy (Frances Conroy), has her own set of problems, and they’re not helping Fleck either. And though Fleck agrees with Norman Bates that a boy’s best friend is his mother, Phillips and Silver lay the blame of Fleck’s transformation from sad sack to murderous psychopath at the feet of an absent father and an uncaring society. This is 1983 Gotham suffering under a trash strike and an infestation of rats. Uncaring, unkind, self-center, myopic people made the city the way it is, and they are making sure it stays that way. Somewhere lives Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and the fabulously wealthy. But Wayne is vastly outnumbered. The rich may have the power, but the poor have the numbers.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker (Heath Ledger) was an agent of chaos, a true devil’s advocate, who introduced mayhem wherever order ruled. Phoenix’s Joker is almost a symptom — the effect of a cause. The result is a profoundly upsetting movie that is powerfully constructed. There’s a precision to the camerawork, but the images are gritty and dank. It’s as if the film stock is rotting away before our eyes. Phillips stays close to Phoenix, whose performance is one of gross physicality and reminiscent of Lon Chaney and the actor who inspired the comic book creation, Conrad Veidt. Phoenix is committed, to say the least.
Joker isn’t free from stumbling blocks: Phillips leans into his reference points heavily, Phoenix dances to one-too-many pop songs, and the movie tackles too much. Is Joker on the side of Fleck? Or is it trying to justify Fleck’s frustration? It is worth noting that neither Taxi Driver nor The King of Comedy lionized or sympathized with Bickle or Pupkin. They empathized with them. And it made their pain feel worse, their actions all the more tragic.
Still, Joker remains a true oddity: A miserable portrait of a mentally ill man smuggled into mainstream cinema under the guise of a comic book movie. You have an idea where this is all heading, but you’re never quite sure how they’re going to get there. You just know it will hurt.
Directed by Todd Phillips
Written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Produced by Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
Warner Bros., Rated R, Running time 122, Opens October 4, 2019. Streaming on HBO Max.