By Laurie Coker
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker feels, at the same time, both disgusting and admirable. Joker’s director and co-writer, with Scott Silver, Todd Phillips explores the dingiest, darkest, and most disturbing aspect of the character and still, he disappoints with his dismal, in-your-face social commentary. Were it not for its star, and some astute cinematography, Joker would have been little more than a revelation of cynicism so immense and inescapable it renders the film painfully tedious and ludicrously empty.
We meet the Joker and the man who will be him on the busy abysmal streets of Gotham. Here, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) twirls a going out of business sign, one of his different jobs as a clown performer. His fellow clowns are as deplorable as he, and the city seems to loom like a wicked character as Arthur is unashamedly tossed around by life. He lives with his ill mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) who he cares for in a bleak apartment where they watch late-night television together and Arthur fantasizes about having a girlfriend and being a comedian. He’s pathetic in every sense of the word and so starts the spiral that gives the comic book world an insane and sinister villain.
Phoenix masterfully and mesmerizingly morphs into a character so detestable and despicable one marvels at inklings of sympathy and compassion for the Clown who kills. Physically, Phoenix is changed – haggard, gaunt, sleazy and sad. It is he who creates this loathsome loner whose backstory is textbook tragic as if somehow this excuses his actions and whose appearance appalls unapologetically. Phoenix seems drawn to these abhorrent types – broken men and he is fantastic at playing them. His performance captivates even when the story falters.
In reality, Phillips and Silver fail the Joker by delivering a predictable story, one that slaps the audience – like delinquents assail the Joker – with a sign that basically declares that humans are an abhorrent and deserving of vigilantism. It is violent and vile. There is no good triumphing over evil here. Through the eyes of Phillips and his talented cinematographer, Gotham (society) harbors hatred and inharmoniousness and they offer very little color and even less hope. Chilling actions by the Joker and horrific reactions by the populous paint a bleak picture of humankind. Phoenix deserves an A but in the grade book, the Joker earns a C.