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An Agent of Chaos

Let me be clear: I’m not a comic book movie kind of guy. In fact, I wasn’t a comic book kind of kid. So going to see a movie about a character in the Batman franchise is kind of out of character for me. But I sensed this was going to be something different, mainly based on seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the trailer, so I headed off to the local multiplex and checked it out.

Let’s not beat around the bush – I’m just going to cut to the chase: Joker is genius.

This movie exists in it’s own universe – there is virtually no mention of Batman, and maybe two or three scenes with Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father), who is presented as a Trump-like figure running for Mayor in a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like NYC in the late ’70s.

But those scenes are kind of incidental – the whole movie works as a very, very dark character study that the casual viewer would never recognize as having anything to do with the Batman franchise. There are no “action” set pieces, indeed, no real whiz-bang special effects of any kind. There is just Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin, in virtually every scene of a two hour movie that felt half as long.

I can honestly say that, after 55+ years of seriously watching movies, I have never seen anything quite like the performance Phoenix gives us. Reviewers have rightfully made note of the film using both “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” as touchstones, but the connection is more in spirit than anything else. Both Travis Bickle and Arthur Fleck are characters that start out alienated and suffering from mental illness and then slowly descend into full-blown psychosis, and without question Robert De Niro’s performance is both haunting and disturbing in a way that is once-seen-never-forgotten. But beyond that, there is no common ground between the two characters.

Joaquin’s performance here is simply jaw-dropping. His slow metamorphosis will definitely bear repeat viewings, and whether or not he wins the Oscar seems kind of irrelevant. This is acting at a level that will be discussed and dissected for a long time – like Walter White for Bryan Cranston, this is a once in a lifetime performance of an unforgettable character. Sometimes the stars just line up.

Phoenix subtly manipulates his voice, face, body, walk, and expression to give a performance that slowly changes and builds an arc that culminates in an ending that is truly chilling. But it’s really all there from the very first scene where a single tear smears his clown makeup as he prepares for another street job holding up a “Going out of business” sign on a trash-laden city street.

Joaquin lost somewhere around 50 lbs. for the part and there are lots of shirtless scenes where he contorts his body in grotesque fashion. His “dancing” throughout the film is incredibly creepy and stunning – especially when you realize that most of it was improvised. The “laugh” has to be seen and heard to be believed – it’s this weird, almost convulsive tick that is impossible to distinguish between laughing and crying – and with each breath it sounds like he’s choking on his own pain.

The violence is not gratuitous, and there are only a few scenes of it – which makes it all the more shocking for it’s sudden and graphic depiction. This is a trick Scorsese understood intuitively throughout his career. Massive credit to Todd Phillips for directing this masterpiece – how this ever got made is a mystery to me, and why it is resonating with the public seems a little ominous, but hey – this is America. We wrote the book on psychotic loners.

An agent of chaos seems like an eerily disturbing yet appropriate metaphor for our time. Watch this film and prepare to be amazed and disturbed. There’s not a humorous or feel good moment in the entire movie.

I’m calling this an instant classic.