Joker is a devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness.
This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman, takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason. Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.
In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital. He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.
Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.
In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.
Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope.
Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.
This is a character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing. This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix. A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable. Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!