Review: ‘Joker’ transforms comic book villainy into a chilling character study

Review: ‘Joker’ transforms comic book villainy into a chilling character study
Warner Bros.

By Richard Roeper

It’s difficult to fathom anyone who has actually seen “Joker” coming away with the impression that it’s a sympathetic origin story or it glorifies violence and bloody anarchy.

To the contrary, as embodied by an emaciated, maniacal, wild-eyed Joaquin Phoenix, who dances like a life-size marionette, laughs uncontrollably at the most inappropriate times and feels alive for the first time in his life only after he kills, “Joker” is a chilling character study centered around the series of events in Gotham City that resulted in the transformation of the sad loner Arthur Fleck into one of the most storied – and psychopathic – comic book supervillains of all time.

When we meet Arthur, he’s a walking punchline who’s considered weird even by the other misfit outcasts working for a second-rate rent-a-clown company. Arthur lives with his shut-in mother (Frances Conroy, doing excellent work) in a decrepit apartment complex. He has a bit of a crush on a single mother (Zazie Beetz) down the hall and delusions of finding success in standup comedy.

Arthur’s mother once worked for billionaire businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of Bruce Wayne, who is about 7 years old at this time. Mom keeps writing letters to Mr. Wayne, insisting to Arthur that he’d help them if he only knew how they were living.

Any early sympathies the film might earn for its beaten down protagonist are challenged, as Arthur finds his true self in murder and mayhem. The homicidal Joker becomes front-page tabloid material, and mobs of mask-wearing protesters intent on literally burning down the establishment hail Joker as their inspiration. But the film itself resists glorifying its central character’s violence and painting this psychopath in anything approaching a favorable light.

Director and co-writer Todd Phillips, best known for comedies such as the “Hangover” movies and “Old School,” has delivered a dark, intense, well-shot examination of a damaged and dangerous soul who lashes out at a society that has stepped over him and looked right through him his entire life, when they’re not making him the butt of their jokes.

We recoil at Arthur’s sudden bursts of violence, which are rendered in a realistic, blood-soaked manner rarely seen in films featuring comic book characters. When thousands, or even millions, are killed in Marvel and DC Universe movies, the deaths are usually cloaked behind PG-13 visuals and shown from a distance. Here, the killings are seen in jarring close-ups and medium shots, producing a much more visceral effect.

The film borrows liberally from the Scorsese canon, particularly “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” and even takes a page from an infamous real-life vigilante subway shooting in New York City during the same early 1980s time period as the film. “Joker” is bathed in dark, ominous tones of brown, deep blue and shades of gray, in sharp contrast to Arthur’s increasingly splashy and garish wardrobe. By the time Joker has fully embraced his insanity, celebrating with a stairwell dance routine, he’s wearing a bright red suit with a pumpkin-colored vest, his face covered in full clown makeup and his hair dyed green.

Phoenix, who appears in virtually every minute of the film and dominates the screen, provides a memorably creepy turn that guarantees “Joker” will cling to you like a particularly vivid nightmare.

Simmering tensions in Gotham City are starting to boil over. Bags of garbage are piled sky high, the result of a weeks-long sanitation workers strike. Unemployment is hitting new highs. Essential social services are being cut. After Arthur, in full clown-face, kills three yuppies on the subway, he becomes an accidental symbol for the 99 percent. Protesters take to the streets wearing clown masks and demonstrate outside a fancy benefit screening of “Modern Times.” Even amid all the violence and civil unrest, Arthur maintains his doomed dream of becoming a stand-up comic, which results in a sub-plot that nearly takes “Joker” off the rails.

When Arthur walks onto the set of “Live! With Murray Franklin,” a Johnny Carson-esque late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro in a too-meta nod to “The King of Comedy”) it’s surreal, jarring and unbelievable even within the confines of this grim comic book story. I kept wondering if it might be a fantasy sequence. Still, even though the scene isn’t nearly as shocking as it intends to be – it’s more weird than dramatically impactful – Phoenix mesmerizes.