I recently re-watched Breaking Bad, and it gets even better on the second trip. Walter White’s revelation from nebbish nobody to meth-making supervillain is a monumental tragedy–a waste of talent that could’ve done so much for so many. The key moment of that series comes toward the end, when Walt’s wife implores him to come clean about his motives. “I did it for me,” he says, with supreme satisfaction. The murders, the life-ruining lies, the undiluted malevolence–he actually enjoyed them all. It’s been said that adversity doesn’t build character so much as reveal it, and Walter is a prime example: The blue crystal doesn’t change him; it simply unboxes the monster he was meant to be.
Walt’s story popped in my head several times during Joker. As the ultimate incarnation of chaotic evil, the Joker’s misdeeds have always been punctuated with a kind of weightless joy: After all, terrorizing Gotham and pushing Batman to his physical and spiritual capacity serve as their own rewards. To add to his complicated persona, nobody who pursues the Joker has a concrete idea what his origins are. He frequently fudges his own story to confuse his opponents. This amplifies the fear and havoc around him by implying that he could be anybody, from anywhere. All Batman can see are the horrible things the Joker does and the hideous contentment he gets from doing them.
Joker blunts some of that impact by making its main character a man who came from somewhere: The film takes us back to the Jimmy Carter years, where recession has rendered Gotham City into a sprawl of soot-covered squalor. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a broken-down clown who lives in a ratty apartment with his mother (Frances Conroy). Arthur has a strange, brittle charm to him. Afflicted with a condition that sends him into thunderous cackling at inopportune times, Arthur is an aspiring comedian who can’t quite grasp the joke that he isn’t funny. Everyone regards him with a putrid hostility: Arthur gets accosted by strangers on the subway, mocked by a late night host (Robert De Niro, riffing his role in King of Comedy), and ostracized by his clown colleagues. Even his own mother treats him with friendly condescension.
The film’s content deliberately provokes some difficult and provocative philosophical questions: Is Arthur truly a ready-made villain, or the pitiful victim of a negligent society? Or could he simply be a lightning rod for all the ugliness around him? Is Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who the movie presents as a righteous dickhead, complicit in pushing Arthur over the edge? The filmmakers put all this out there for debate, and leave the audience to decide for themselves.
As the Joker, Phoenix is absolutely phenomenal. He seamlessly takes his character from shambling milquetoast to a cheerfully unhinged psychotic–think John Hinkley in a clown suit. It takes a certain fearlessness for such a role, and Phoenix joins Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Mark Hamill as actors who pull it off with ballsy brilliance. The rest of the cast is equal to the material: De Niro brings a Johnny Carson-style folksiness to his late night icon. Zazie Beetz does fine work as the single mother who, incredulously, takes an interest in the mumbling clown who lives down the hall.
A disclaimer at the theater concession stand warned that this wasn’t a typical comic book movie. And they weren’t kidding. This is a dark film, with graphic violence and mature subject matter. It’s a character study of how a broken man becomes an unrelenting, unredeemable killer. This journey is every bit as dour as it sounds. Like Walter White, the Joker seems to enjoy both the man that adversity reveals him to be and the subsequent power it gives him. The key difference is that this story has no one–not a Jesse Pinkman, nor a wife and kids–for us to care about. What we’re left with is a well-made movie with brilliant performances, but it’s also an unpleasant and exhausting cinematic experience.
121 min. R.