Joaquin Phoenix has turned in another riveting, intense performance in “Joker,” this time as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill young man who lives with his invalid mother and works as a clown. In the opening scene, he is twirling a sign on the rat-infested, garbage-strewn streets of Gotham (1970s New York City) when 5 young men steal his “Everything must go!” sign and beat him up in an alley.
If you think this is grim, just wait.
Joaquin has pretty much made a career out of playing character parts that Bruce Dern of 30 years ago, Crispin Glover of 20 years ago, or Michael Shannon of today might play. He is intense and strange, excelling, as one critic put it, in films that depict “exquisite isolation.” In this film, for which he lost 15 pounds, he looks emaciated, like Christian Bale in “The Mechanic.” He claims it helped him with his weirdly artistic dance moves to be lighter on his feet. Arthur (Phoenix) laughs inappropriately and compulsively and may suffer from pseudobulbar affect disorder (or any of a series of ailments often related to traumatic brain injury and/or schizophrenia). It is off-putting and uncomfortable; he even carries a small card explaining his condition to strangers, much like the deaf have used.
The tour-de-force part of Arthur Fleck is eerily reminiscent of Travis Bickle in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” This part also builds on Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight Rises” and gives us a back story for Joker that is different from the ones in other “Batman” films. Oscar history could repeat itself with a gold statuette for Joaquin, but the film, itself, does not seem Oscar-worthy, to me.
Joaquin has been acting since the early eighties. Many of his best performances have utilized his personal projection of a sense of strange intensity. I remember seeing him on David Letterman’s show on February 11th, 2009, when he claimed he was giving up acting for good to become a rapper. He acted weird, strange and was monosyllabic. Letterman played off that, as he used to do when Crispin Glover came on the show and acted like a World Class Weirdo. (Remember the kicking sequence with Glover on the show?)
At the time, Joaquin was making the movie “I’m Still Here” with his then brother-in-law (Casey Affleck). As it turned out, they thought it would be a good promotional stunt to have Joaquin claim he was quitting acting to become a rapper. Later, on September 22, 2010, Joaquin returned to Letterman’s “Tonight” show to admit that he was actually not finished with acting. Each time, Phoenix came across as supremely weird, strange, and intense. He’s supposed to be engaged to frequent co-star Mara Rooney now, so perhaps both of those television appearances were just good examples of his acting ability.
Whatever. He fooled most of us, and, therefore, his persona with the public and the press has been close to that of Arthur Fleck. The part of “Joker” was perfect for him. Director/Writer Todd Phillips (the “Hangover” movies) said that he never wanted to develop a Plan B for any other casting, because he always intended to cast Phoenix in the part.
When New York Times writer David Itzkoff pointed out while interviewing Phoenix that he seemed to be the “go to” character actor for such over-the-top intense performances and that Phoenix could continue acting characters like this for a very long time, the actor responded, “Oh, really?” in a sarcastic voice as dry as sandpaper. “Well, good. Thank you so much. That’s great. I was worried.”
Then, said Itzkoff, “he grinned and let out a laugh to let me know he was kidding. (Or was he?”)
Joaquin Phoenix is a good bet for an Oscar nomination and, potentially, for a win, although it’s still early for making those predictions.
The film is powerful, but about as grim a film as you can find. Still, there were many great supporting turns from the rest of the cast including Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under,” “American Horror Story”) as his mother, Robert DeNiro as talk show host Murray Franklin and Zazee Beetz as his next-door neighbor Sophie Dumond. The use of DeNiro as the late night talk show host modeled on Johnny Carson elicited echoes of Jerry Lewis’ 1982 film “King of Comedy,” where DeNiro played Rupert Pupkin.
Cinematography & Editing:
Director/Writer Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver) has used an interesting mix of “Is this really happening?” cinema, woven together to leave it up to the audience to determine whether what Arthur Fleck is experiencing is wishful thinking or really happening. Audiences today are fairly savvy. We are used to having to figure out some of the connecting tissue of a film on our own, and Phillips handles that beautifully, along with the assistance of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who seems to love to dwell on Phoenix in close-up. Phillips does a good job of incorporating the seamy, rat-infested city of Gotham as almost a character in itself, and the many nods to Scorsese’s classic films show that, “Hangover” or no “Hangover,” Phillips recognizes a modern-day cinematic icon’s quality work when he sees it. All nice touches.
I was not a fan of the cello-heavy score by the 31 people listed as being in charge of the music for the film. It was overpoweringly dark, screaming, “Feel sorry for Arthur” at every plot turn.
That last remark brings me to the fact that we are primed to feel sorry for/excuse Arthur for his misdeeds. There isn’t a single murder that takes place (and there are plenty, most of them bloody) that some rationale or excuse as to why Arthur would have committed the bloodthirsty crime can’t be ginned up to defend or excuse this poor mentally-ill man (who seems completely amoral by film’s end, if not before).
When Arthur first turns homicidal on a subway train, he has acted in self defense. The plot channels Bernard Goetz, who shot and wounded four African-American youths on a Manhattan subway train in 1984. Only this time “the enemy” is Wall Street and it is three young white Wall Street brokers, insensitive louts all, who abuse and mistreat poor Arthur before he snaps. That brings about the violence. The viewer does feel that the audience is supposed to sympathize with the poor beaten-down loser that Joaquin is portraying so well. We’re rooting for “the little guy” standing up for himself, even if you feel that a sane person would have taken his chances with the NYPD, since the subway shootings seem justified.
After that, while excuses/rationales/reasons are still given for every single murder, feeling sorry for poor Arthur goes downhill fast.
The entire idea of the poor versus the rich is elevated to new heights when portions of Arthur’s comedy act showing him laughing hysterically and uncontrollably are broadcast on Murray Franklin’s show. Arthur becomes a lightning rod for the general sense of malaise and unrest abroad in the land. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Arthur, at one point.
It’s not just you, Arthur. It IS getting crazier out there, and most of us know why.
It is interesting to have a homicidal, mentally-ill killer elevated, by film’s end, almost to the point of “leader of the pack,” but maybe not such a great idea. We can always bring back Steve Bannon, who wants to tear down everything in order to create “the Fourth Turning” (as he himself articulated in the Erroll Morris “American Dharma” documentary).
Permissive nods towards out-of-control violence of any kind should be quickly squelched, whenever and wherever they crop up. Arthur’s sad plight illustrates many of the issues this country is facing. Indeed, problems that the entire world is facing: the ‘haves vs have nots” battle, etc. But letting anarchy rule doesn’t seem like the best solution, regardless of our emotional empathy for Arthur Fleck and embattled little people the world over.