There is, for one, a certain exploitative topicality to the film, to the way it tries to hold up a mirror, cracked like the one Jack Nicholson shattered during his own tenure in the clown makeup, to a scary and rampant American dementia—that mixture of rage and disillusionment that’s scrawled across so much headline horror in 2019.
Arthur, who looks after his ailing mother in a run-down rat-nest apartment—just as Phoenix’s character in You Were Never Really Here did—makes ends meet as a rent-a-clown, but really wants to be a stand-up comedian.
Early on, director Todd Phillips films Phoenix from behind as he saunters his way down a bustling street, and we see in the actor’s gate the unmistakable phantom of Travis Bickle, that seething rat in the big-city cage.
It’s a well-tailored suit—the film looks great, cinematographer Lawrence Sher supplying one powerhouse image after another, and it pushes forward with a seductive energy, pulling us from one scene to the next as forcefully as Arthur is swallowed by the chaos of the city.
Joker may be the first ripped-from-the-comics spectacle that’s also, essentially, a one-man show: The only special effects are Phoenix’s malleable body and expressive face.
Joker, in the end, is stylish and reasonably involving and a bit one-note; once you acclimate to its claustrophobic portraiture, it becomes clear that Phillips has little in store for us but one miniature Phoenix freak-out after another.
Joker may cop its values, aesthetic and philosophical, from other films, but at least it has values.