First off, just give Joaquin Phoenix all the awards. He deserves any that come his way for his haunting portrayal of a mentally disturbed man beaten down by a cruel society before discovering violence and murder as his escape, at least in his damaged mind.
Phoenix reportedly lost 55 pounds for the role and his bony, wiry frame carries this film in virtually every scene. He is mesmerizing as Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire, with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he gets nervous, creating an increasing chasm between Fleck and the public. Most of his interactions with people are bad and the good ones seem to be created in the movie in his mind. When that movie finally unspools, his empathy for his fellow city dwellers does as well.
All of this is set in the early ’80s of Gotham City, a dying city in the midst of a garbage strike. As the bags of trash pile up, Fleck’s soul spoils and rots. His first crime (arguably committed in self-defense) sparks a movement in Gotham against the rich and greedy.
Thomas Wayne (daddy to you-know-who) embodies the smug, entitled class that so many are ready to go to battle against, but besides the presence of the Waynes and clown face paint, this movie could have been made with no reference to its comics origins.
For many of us, Joker and Batman have been a part of our entire lives, from comic books to cartoons, and movies. So I admittedly brought my own expectations to the film. Joker is mad, yes, but he is also a cunning genius, which makes him a worthy and challenging nemesis to the Dark Knight.
The Joker in this movie would be defeated by the Batman in about 30 seconds. This movie is not about smarts, but about sanity.
It really is a case study of one man’s mental collapse and Phoenix makes that collapse compelling and believable, though the film is often very tough to watch, with lots of cringe-worthy scenes of a character who is never going to fit in, and instead, ultimately chooses to lash out.