By Jeffrey Sanzel
Batman’s most infamous nemesis, the Joker, first appeared in the Batman comic book in 1940. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, the psychopathic clown with a sadistic streak has endured for eight decades, being reinvented time and again.
The Joker was first embodied on the small screen in the 1960s with Cesar Romero’s over-the-top but highly enjoyable take in the camp television series (and subsequent film) Batman. First-billed Jack Nicholson played the criminal with gangster shades in the more serious 1989 Batman film. Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar for his twitchy, psychotic anarchist that traded on the character’s insanity and ambiguity in The Dark Knight (2008). Jared Leto took a fairly modern approach with a tattooed and outlandish hoodlum in Suicide Squad (2016).
As for the Joker’s origin, it has been recreated throughout his existence, with no true commitment to who he is and how he came to be. Part of his mystique is this swirling mystery. The Joker is the ultimate unreliable narrator: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” (The Killing Joke, 1988).
Which brings us to Joker, the new film from director Todd Phillips, who has co-written the screenplay with Scott Silver. This is not just a rethinking of the character and his world; this is another world entirely, and a brutally real one.
The Gotham City of Joker is a bleak vision of 1980 New York City, a crime- and rat-infested hell; it is a world mired in corruption where the haves actively keep down the have-nots. There are strong political statements that touch on gun control, living conditions of the disenfranchised and the treatment of mental health. (It should be noted that there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the film and its violence.)
Phillips presents a back-storied Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown whose work is limited to sign-tossing in front of stores and entertaining in children’s hospital wards. He suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. The marginalized Fleck cares for his mother (Frances Conroy, harboring family secrets) in a rundown apartment. Fleck’s great goal is to become a stand-up comic and an unsuccessful attempt contributes to his downward spiral.
Rather than the tale of a larger-than-life villain — the insane master criminal and homicidal clown — Joker is about society’s rejection of those who need the support the most. The film opens with him being beaten by a group of teenage thugs. Later, Fleck learns that the social services he relies on for his seven medications have been cut. It is this continuous “bad day” scenario that plagues him.
The already delicate Fleck is driven to his choices by external circumstances. His murder of three Wall Street brokers who are abusing him on the subway becomes freeing. His actions make him a hero to a city that takes up the cry of “Kill the Rich.” Mobs of clown-masked protesters turn the metropolis into a literal hell.
If one separates the history of the character, it is easier to embrace Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It is a monument of introspection, of ticks, of pain. His Fleck is a man on the brink and then beyond. The camera rarely leaves him for the two-hour running time. Phoenix is the film.
If anything, the character is based less on the Joker and hearkens more to Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Taxi Driver (1976), with shades of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982). This is no surprise as the common denominator is Robert DeNiro, the creator of Bickle in the former and the down-on-his luck comedian Pupkin in the latter. In Joker, DeNiro comfortably assays a callous late-night host who brings Fleck onto his show, after using a clip of Fleck’s disastrous stand-up. So much of this adds up to Joker as a homage to these films and those performances.
Special note should be made of Lawrence Sher’s cinematography. Its evocative harshness contributes to the uncompromising tension. The final moments resonate long after the film is over, a true portrait of senseless, bloody violence.
Joker certainly feels the least like a comic adaptation of any film, and, as an addition to that cinematic universe, it is a strange one. However, it is apparent that this was a choice by the creators. They have opted for a realm that is a gritty, recognizable world, where the day-to-day angers cause horrors that enflame chaos and mayhem. Ultimately, if one separates the film from its source, Joker is a dark, unique and current reflection of our own times.
Rated R, Joker is now playing in local theaters.