★★★★ / ★★★★
Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.
The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.
I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.
When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.
It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.