Calling Joker a comic book movie is akin to calling The Great Gatsby an interesting little book or Mirazur a nice place to grab a bite. Sure, technically you’d be correct, but some things in life transcend the basic description. As disturbing and terrifying as any movie you will see this year, Joker is indeed the origin story of perhaps comic-dom’s most notorious villain, but brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliantly unorthodox mind (and body) and guided by director and co-writer Todd Phillips’ dark vision, the film becomes much, much more—a haunting parable for our times, a supremely unnerving character study, and, most of all, an excellent, transcendent film.
Veering so wildly off course from established lore in the DC Comics canon (save for, albeit only slightly, 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke graphic novel), Joker is, thankfully, its own story. Though set in Gotham and featuring Thomas Wayne (father of young Bruce) as a supporting character, the comic book world is much more an ancillary theme here than a guiding force. In fact, a newbie or outsider would have no way of knowing there’s anything “comic book” about it.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a mentally ill, hard-luck, clown-for hire in Gotham, relegated to standing on a street corner and twirling a Going Out of Business sign, though he dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He lives in poverty with his frail mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and relies on meds and weekly visits with a social worker to function (albeit barely) in society.
After being attacked by a gang of young punks, he is offered a handgun for protection by one of his co-clowns, but when it falls out of his costume during a visit to a children’s hospital, Arthur is fired. On his way home (still in his clown costume) he is again attacked, this time by a trio of Wall Street-type businessmen, who he (gleefully) murders with the handgun. When the newspapers report on the crime, the unidentified “clown vigilante” becomes an overnight hero to Gotham’s disenfranchised.
As with the ill-advised idea of calling the film a comic book movie in the first place, that is only the most base description of what takes place in Joker. The multi-layered, violently twisted, and intricate script by Phillips and Scott Silver takes Fleck’s story in a myriad of unexpected directions, and since we’re witnessing it all through the eyes of a devolving “madman”, there’s a palpable sense that we’re walking a razor-thin high wire that could snap at any moment.
Phoenix, who immediately leaps to the front of the line for Best Actor nominations, has crafted a character so terrifying and memorable that it will fester in your mind for a good long while after the credits roll. And Phillips proves with captivating authority that his days of being the man behind puerile goofball flicks such as The Hangover and Old School are long behind him. Joker is, quite simply, a masterpiece of unnerving cinema.
Sure, it’s one heck of a comic book movie, too.