We're in Gotham City, this time stylized as late 1970s/early 1980s New York City with the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike thrown in for foul measure. A profoundly disturbed, not especially likeable man gets beaten down by even less likeable men. He's attacked in the streets and mugged on the subway. His boss fires him. He wants to be a comedian. "When I told everyone I was going to be a comedian," goes his best joke, "everybody laughed. Well, who's laughing now?"
Actually, he is. He has a condition that makes him chortle at inappropriate times, regardless of his feelings.
He does care for his mother. Both suffer from psychological problems and delusions. Of course, just because someone is delusional, it doesn't mean everything they believe is wrong. One of the more interesting questions this film raises concerns the veracity of her belief about her son's father. The film provides no definite answers, but the question certainly propels the narrative.
That story sees our demented protagonist become a chaotic killer and a reluctant symbol of a movement that combines elements of Occupy, the alt-right, and Anonymous, with clown masks replacing Guy Fawkes faces.
Since we're in Gotham, that man eventually will become the Joker, although the disparity between his age and Bruce Wayne's would mean a very young Batman will take on an ageing adversary. Never mind. That's all in a future we won't be seeing.
Joaquin Phoenix gives an outstanding performance, different from Heath Ledger's or Jack Nicholson's, but memorable and disturbingly plausible. Throughout, the performances elevate this movie above a problematic script. Robert De Niro remains excellent, as always, as a local talk show host who baits the main character. Frances Conroy manages to be both sympathetic and repulsive as ma Penny. You won't like many characters in this film (or perhaps any characters in this film), but no one can deny the quality of even the minor players. This film barely qualifies as a comic-book movie, and even its more over-the-top flourishes may exist only in its protagonist's dark imagination.
Indeed, without the name-checking of DC Comics references and the involvement of the Wayne Family (who could have been called anything here), the film might have been very much its own movie, a sort of killer clown take on Falling Down or Death Wish crossed with Taxi Driver. But then, it wouldn't have received quite so much attention. And this film received attention, long before it opened. In the wake of mass shooting across America and rage across the political spectrum, many media outlets warned the film would encourage violence. It makes an antihero of a crazed supervillain, and it lacks a clear moral center. Is the Joker truly evil if his world contains no sense of good?
Joker's real-world elements, and its questioning of its own internal reality, work powerfully, if not always comfortably. The attempt to make Joker a part of DC's Gotham City work less effectively. The film doesn't want to be a part of a larger universe, but it keeps gesturing to that larger universe, often in ways that only make sense if you know it. This tendency damages the main story.
Take one example.
During the film's climactic sequence, the Wayne Family darts out of a movie theatre and into a dark alley. The camera leaves the main action and follows them, where we witness the killing of Thomas Wayne and his wife right in front of their son, Bruce. The killer even takes what he can of Mrs. Wayne's pearl necklace, as the rest fall dramatically to the pavement. Shocking, right? Not because of the death, but because, in the middle of the climax, we're treated, yet again, to Batman's origin story. This revisiting is not only monumentally unnecessary at this point, it distracts from the main plot. These events then become important to the Joker in the final moment of the film.
DC has failed to create an interconnected, coherent superhero universe in the manner of Marvel, but they have turned out a a few interesting films that don't worry about continuity any more than comics once had. Joker exists as an interesting, but uncertain film. Intentionally or not, its antihero functions as a wish-fulfillment for mass shooters and disenfranchised terrorists. I think concerns about this move encouraging violence seem excessive, but I cannot say I left the theatre feeling especially happy about some of the film's choices.
Then again, the film doesn't want us to be comfortable. I doubt the filmmakers were particularly comfortable, either. Joker is well-made and well-acted, but, in the end, I'm not certain it knows what it intends to be.
Director: Tod Phillips
Writer: Scott Silver
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker
Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin
Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond
Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck
Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne
Douglas Hodge as Alfred Pennyworth
Shea Whigham as Detective Burke
Bill Camp as Detective Garrity
Glenn Fleshler as Randall
Leigh Gill as Gary
Josh Pais as Hoyt Vaughn
Rocco Luna as GiGi Dumond
Marc Maron as Gene Ufland
Sondra James as Dr. Sally
Murphy Guyer as Barry O'Donnell
Dante Pereira-Olson as Bruce Wayne
Carrie Louise Putrello as Martha Wayne
Sharon Washington as Social Worker
Hannah Gross as Young Penny
Frank Wood as Dr. Stoner
Brian Tyree Henry as Carl the Arkham Clerk
April Grace as Arkham Psychiatrist
Carl Lundstedt, Michael Benz, and Ben Warheit as Subway Guys