Creatively disturbing,”Joker” is an eerie fantasy that director Todd Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver have constructed by building on the famous character from the “Batman” franchise. Their Joker, whose name is Arthur Fleck, is the center of attraction and the focus in a violent take involving protests against wealth and power as depicted in Gotham City in the early 1980s, with the fictional locale looking very much like New York, and in particular 42nd Street, when acts of mass destruction break loose.
The inherently nasty but arresting film gains from the relentless title performance by Joaquin Phoenix, with Joker portrayed as a smiling, laughing psychopath filled with resentment and fueled by mounting desire for personal revenge. It is understandable that the film has generated worry about it potentially inspiring acts by other psychos similar to what we see Joker commit, especially in our currents time of mass shootings.
Joker, who entertains as a clown, has a tick that results in wild, sometimes uncontrollable laughter, but which he has learned to use in needling others. The plot involves Joker’s belief that he is the love child between mayoral candidate wealthy Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and has dotty mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), who worked for Wayne as a maid. In the course of compulsive research, Joker finds out a deeply upsetting truth that rips that story to pieces and further ignites the fury that consumes him.
As the film unfolds we watch Joker in an early killing spree and his descent into increased psychosis. He is mesmerized by a late night talk show, hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and his desire is to be on that show. How his wish comes true is a key part of the plot, and that episode stretches credibility to a breaking point. But it is slickly woven into the escalation of deeply upsetting violence.
Such violence differs from Quentin Tarantino’s brand of violence geared to making an audience cheer with delight. The violence in “Joker” is unnerving and created as part of the vision of defining Joker, arch villain in the “Batman” sagas, as a psychopathic entity unto himself.
The film is alive with creativity, including the soundtrack use of Frank Sinatra singing “That’s Life” and “Send in the Clowns,” and striking visual effects. Above all, it explodes with the award-caliber performance by Phoenix. The overall result is a mixed bag of a film that can leave one recoiling in horror, yet still respecting what the writer-director and co-screenwriter Scott Silver have done in presenting us this vision that also extends a symbolic message for today.
The film’s dramatization of inequities via the fantasy 1980s “kill the rich” protests that are depicted might be seen as an ultra-violent parallel to the peaceful “tax the rich” proposals targeting inequities pinpointed in today’s political battles. But the symbolism doesn’t do anything to alleviate the pit-in-the-stomach upset at Joker’s insane behavior and the killings we witness. A Warner Brothers release. Reviewed November 4, 2019.