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Joaquin Phoenix Is Amazing In The Troubling “Joker”

No movie in recent memory has drummed up the kind of controversy and debate that Joker has. Sure, other projects have gotten tagged as controversial, but when has it also been intertwined with prestigious film festival prizes and Academy Award buzz? This is truly a one of a kind situation. Is Joker a prestige revision of comic book fare? A dangerous rationalization for the scourge of violence in America committed by lonely white males? Something else entirely? Did Todd Phillips merely take the wrong inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver? In actuality, it’s all of those things and nothing at once. Opening this week, there’s nothing else like it.

This is a standalone origin story for the iconic Batman villain, though as presented, it’s far more just a tale of unchecked mental illness and the dangers of a society on the edge. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives a sad life in Gotham City, alone with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). A party clown afflicted with mental illness, Arthur was once committed, but even without that trouble, suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate moments. Gotham is stuck in the throes of a sanitation strike, leading to garbage piling up, as well as an epidemic of super rats. The city is on edge, something Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) seeks to utilize in a run for Mayor. A wannabe stand up comic, Arthur is trying to hold on, but the mixture of losing his job, a violent confrontation on the subway, a mistakenly interpreted encounter with a neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and the mockery of his act by late night host Murray Frankline (Robert De Niro) mix to send him over the edge. To say more would be to spoil things, but this does not tie in with the DC Dark Knight, even if there are some overlaps in origin. It’s truly its own beast. Phillips directs and co-writes with Scott Silver, while Lawrence Sher handles cinematography, and Hildur Guðnadóttir composed the score. Supporting players include Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron, Josh Pais, Shea Whigham, and more.

Without question, Joaquin Phoenix gives one of the most riveting performances of the year. It’s one of his best and most committed to date, with nary a moment of artifice. From the physical mannerisms to the way he comes up with the laugh, it’s perfectly unsettling. Every bit of Oscar related praise for his turn is warranted, even if it’s hard (though not impossible) to imagine voters embracing this. Phoenix plays Fleck as a mentally ill man still tugging at the frays of humanity, until Gotham cuts that away, sending him down a one way path to villainous insanity. The film also some terrific technical achievements. Todd Phillips’ direction may center on Phoenix, but he uses Lawrence Sher’s gritty cinematography to make an alternate Gotham City that resembles the Scorsese filmed New York of a generation ago. Mixed with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, the tech work is terrific. Unfortunately, there’s more here to discuss than just that. Phillips’ intensely dark ideology here is something that stains the soul. That’s where the message is muddled. The flick comes ever so close to making excuses for a psychopath. There’s even a climactic scene where Fleck, now full Joker, in one sentence firmly states he has no political ideology, but then in the next breath puts forth a manifesto against the rich and the overall nasty demeanor of fellow man. It’s a mixed message that gives you pause.

Joker is legitimately one of the most upsetting cinematic experiences of my life, for better or for worse. As mentioned above, Phoenix is on another level with how amazing he is here, while the cinematography from Sher perfectly captures how ugly the city can be. There’s also the riveting score by Guðnadóttir. Technically, it’s beyond anything we’ve seen from Todd Phillips to date. However, it’s also just so dark, intentionally wallowing in bleakness, that it leaves you with a terrible feeling inside. This is definitely the movie Phillips and Scott Silver set out to make, but I’m not sure it’s one that should have been made. It’s not a stretch to see someone take the wrong message from the work. That’s not to suggest that it get banned or anything ridiculous like that, just to factor in that this could be seen in a different light than intended. If the incel movement takes up Arthur Fleck as their hero, it won’t be what the filmmakers intended, but it will be an unfortunate consequence of their actions.

The myriad technical virtues of Joker, as well as Phoenix’s performance, make Joker impossible not to praise at least in those regards. Overall, it’s a work that purposely prods, though with such a mean spirit that it’s hard not to leave a screening without feeling awful on the inside. That’s not even necessarily a criticism, just a fact. It’ll be up to all of you to determine if this is a worthwhile story or not. I’m just suggesting that there’s both good and bad on display here. See it this weekend and decide for yourself…

Be sure to check out Joker, in theaters everywhere starting tomorrow!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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