Joaquin Phoenix Embodies Modern Despair in Nihilistic ‘Joker’

Todd Phillips‘ “Joker” is a film of images. That is what lingers more than its plot. What will surely generate the most attention is the searing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, which cackles and smiles a lot, but is one of the year’s most depressing, nihilistic turns delivered by any actor. Those walking in should be warned, this is not a Batman movie, or has any credible link to what is generally perceived as a “comic book adaptation.” It is its own brooding thing, devoid of heart and absorbing all that is sick of our times without fully commenting on any of it. Much of it is effective as pure aesthetic.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a lonely soul working as a clown for an agency in 1980s Gotham City, which feels more like New York. One day he’s jumped without reason by some local kids who steal his sign and beat him up. He takes a co-worker’s advice and gets a gun. His evenings are spent in a rundown apartment with his ailing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who babbles endlessly about seeking financial help from local billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who she claims to have known years before. Arthur would like to get closer to his neighbor, the nice Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but he’s a loner dreaming of becoming a standup comic even though he’s never hit the stage. It doesn’t help that he has an unidentified mental condition which provokes sudden, spontaneous laughter. Then events begin to spiral out of Arthur’s control. One night on the subway he shoots a group of Wall Street jerks who were harassing a female passenger before turning on Arthur. When he finally gives standup a try at a local club he bombs, only to have a tape of his performance be used for laughs on a show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s fragile psyche can only take so much, and it’s not long before he snaps.

Phillips is not a name one would readily associate with themes of loneliness in the decay of modern, urban capitalism. A king of raunch, his movies like “The Hangover” series and “Due Date” celebrated debauchery with shallow glee. “Joker” is Phillips attempting to prove he can make a serious movie, even an arthouse one. Visually he succeeds and any appeal “Joker” will have with audiences might be based on the way Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher craft baroque images of a rotting city and Phoenix’s skeletal frame wandering through it. There is genuine eeriness in shots of Arthur, decked in a crimson suit and clown makeup dancing his way down some steps or waiting behind a curtain to appear onstage, cast in a neon glow. The best moments in this movie are the ones without dialogue, when the camera lingers on Arthur’s demented and sad face as he sits at home lost in his thoughts, or stares out a bus window. He has dreamlike fantasies of dating Sophie and even rushing home after his subway murder to kiss her at her doorstep. These are effective moments that capture the tragic delusions of a lonely, volatile person. Giving it all tension is the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who composed the atmospheric music for HBO’s “Chernobyl” and here gives Arthur a theme that sounds like a metallic cello screeching to capture his growing insanity. 

But if the movie works visually the screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver, who knows about grit with credits that include “The Fighter” and “8 Mile,” is a shallow exercise essentially recycling elements from Martin Scorsese movies like “Taxi Driver” and particularly “The King of Comedy.” As in the latter, Arthur wants to be a comedian but hasn’t ever really put effort into it, he prefers to fantasize about being embraced by Murray Franklin on his show in the same way he daydreams about Sophie without actually engaging with her. It’s a repeat of Robert De Niro’s character in the Scorsese movie as a wannabe comic who stalks Jerry Lewis and tries to impress a bartender he likes with lies. This makes the De Niro casting more of a wink than anything else. Of course those who follow film news know Scorsese himself was originally a producer on this project.

But what exactly Phillips wants to say with this material is unclear. Arthur is told his medication and counseling sessions will end because of budget cuts, he’s fired from work for doing a clown show at a children’s hospital and forgetting about his gun which slips out of his costume, essentially he becomes the quintessential time bomb who can’t get a break. Fame comes after he shoots the Wall Street bros and the downtrodden of Gotham begin wearing clown masks at protests against the elite. In “The Dark Knight” Heath Ledger’s unsurpassable Joker was a feral, anarcho-terrorist who was driven by the need to demolish civilized order, Arthur Fleck is invited onto Franklin’s show after his tape becomes a hit and admits he believes in nothing. He’s simply a “loser” who ends up representing the 1% by shooting down some Wall Street suits, one of whom starts swinging around a subway car pole singing “Send in the Clowns.” What Arthur is meant to represent or convey is a mystery only Phillips might understand, because all he evokes on screen is aimless pain, which many people do actually endure but should a film simply be despair for entertainment and nothing more? The storyline involving Penny’s obsession with Thomas Wayne leads Arthur to discover horrific truths about his childhood which develop little in terms of narrative, they are merely another episode in his march towards the film’s calculated, bloody climax. 

At the center of this symphony of distress is Joaquin Phoenix, who again proves he is an actor of great skill. His physique alone becomes a map of suffering. Like his religious acolyte in “The Master,” Phoenix’s shockingly thin frame becomes part of the film’s visual power. He bends himself or dances with a creepy elegance, we never even see him eat and when he stretches a smile with his fingers he looks like death. This isn’t the manic Joker of the Batman movies, but a sad man who cackles and does a jig to at least distract himself from the crumbling world of his life. If Phoenix is nominated for an Oscar it wouldn’t be a surprise, he dominates every scene with unnerving presence. Some actors can absolutely take a weak script and elevate it, this is what Phoenix does in “Joker.” Even when the final scenes turn into an absurd riot, with one ludicrous moment connecting the whole affair to the Batman franchise, you can’t deny the cosmetic, visual flare of Arthur rising above the rioters with a crimson smile illuminated by burning cars. It’s a bizarre case of the imagery saying more than the movie itself. It’s such moments that work better than Phillips’s crass use of violence, as in one scene where Arthur bashes in someone’s head in his apartment. It’s not provocative or shocking, just needless. Some might consider Arthur’s final act of vengeance when he finally goes on TV bold, but it feels more like a gimmick. 

There has been much chatter in the media over “Joker” possibly influencing potentially violent subgroups like “incels.” It’s hard to say. Some might just find it cathartic since it’s so depressed. Even Trump haters might interpret something of the Donald in the dismissive billionaire Thomas Wayne. “Joker” isn’t even much of a straight forward plot, but instead a collection of sad moments. It’s not a comic book movie, but a shallow requiem. Take from it what you will, but it surely won’t be hope.

Joker” opens Oct. 3 in theaters nationwide.