Arthur Fleck walks into his kitchen late one night, carefully removes the food and shelves from the refrigerator, then crawls into it, shutting the door tightly behind him. We never actually see how Arthur (played in a powerhouse bit of agonizing by Joaquin Phoenix) escapes from his self-made death trap, but he goes on to inflict more damage to himself, and to significant others, in Todd Phillips’ wondrously downbeat Joker, which despite its unrelentingly grim and despairing mood is one the year’s most important films.
America (the world?) is in a particularly foul mood these days, and there are some who want to blame entertainments like director Phillips’ and screenwriter Scott Silver’s action-filled character study, the latest example of “DC darkness” for audiences in love with the Batman comic-book franchise. But even moviegoers who have little time for comics can find something to relate to in actor Phoenix’s portrait of Arthur, a desperately lonely ex-mental patient – and walking-wounded standup comedian -- who lives with his aging mother in a rundown apartment and works as a sign spinner on the streets of Gotham City, dressed as the archetypal scary clown.
Enter the Joker, a further “anarchic” echo of Heath Ledger’s vision of the character in The Dark Knight (2008). Arthur’s query “Is it just me?” is his calling card in dealing with such antagonists as mocking late-night TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, superb); Randall, a provocateur colleague from the clown-hawker agency (Glenn Fleshler); and Arthur’s true nemesis, aloof plutocrat Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who may or may not be our anti-hero’s father. Their conflicts, essentially the struggle for Arthur’s soul, are set against a recognizable cityscape – all chaos and confusion, with business-bros gunned down on a subway train, “kill the rich” protestors in riot mode, and newspaper headlines screaming “Clown Vigilante!” The real Arthur under the greasepaint is far more disturbing than the circus freak.
The anchor for all this is Phoenix’s Arthur, whose emaciated physique and tortured expression instantly recall actor-madman Antonin Artaud, or the ominous side of Daniel Day Lewis. Or maybe De Niro’s Travis Bickle, “God’s lonely man.” The Martin Scorsese connection to Phillips-Silver-Phoenix’s Gotham Grand Guignol is there for everyone to see, from Arthur’s repeated “shot to the temple” finger gesture (from Taxi Driver) and his fevered journal entries (writer Paul Schrader’s Robert Bresson riff in Taxi Driver), to the Rupert Pupkin-like antics (borrowed from The King of Comedy) on the talk show.
Actor Phoenix seems consistently attracted to roles of troubled characters (The Master, Irrational Man, Two Lovers, You Were Never Really Here, etc.). Arthur Fleck is one of his most complex, an unwanted person searching for acceptance from people either unable (his mother Penny Fleck, played by Frances Conroy) or unwilling, like haughty Thomas Wayne, to gather him in. The film’s only tender moments show Arthur’s budding love interest in his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), another big-city castaway. But of course nothing comes of it. Arthur’s downward spiral is irreversible and absolute, with only a smattering of grace notes – his restroom ballet, a love clinch with Sophie – to briefly distract us. All the while Phoenix puts on a master class in physicality, set to composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s hypnotically evocative music score. Arthur’s gyrations thrill and repel us in equal measure, but never let us lose sight of his essential neediness. We cannot look away and cross the street. He’s in our face for the full two hours.
Arthur’s ordeal really has little to do with Batman or any other comic-book character. It is possible to come to Joker with no knowledge of the DC empire, or the avalanche of superhero vehicles. The only prerequisite is a taste for some of the most provocative storytelling we’ve seen on the big screen in a long, long time. Joker will grab you and hold you. Listen to it.