The most unsettling part of Adam McKay’s recent Dick Cheney biopic, Vice, was that it presented someone whom many consider a monster as an actual human being. Now it looks like McKay’s fellow comedy director with genre-hopping ambitions, Hangover helmer Todd Phillips, is about to pull off a similar feat with an equally formidable monster, the Joker.
Due on October 4, Phillips’ Joker puts Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, and from the looks of the just-released trailer, it utilizes all the creepy gifts the actor has demonstrated in the past, from Gladiator to You Were Never Really Here, and then some. The movie has been in the works for a while, with early photos from the set revealing Phoenix in relatively unassuming clown makeup. Anyone skeptical of the need for any more Joker movies while Jared Leto may still be playing him elsewhere, though, will likely be reassured by the trailer. It promises a truly dark and creepy drama, different from the “gritty” Nolan-style comic book movies or the “twisted” Joker who appeared in Suicide Squad. It’s also loaded with intriguing references to other films.
Although it’s still unclear how much of the film will focus on origin story vs. the fully formed character, the trailer grounds the Joker in different roots from anything we’ve seen before. In stark contrast to Jack Nicholson’s flamboyant crime-lover in 1989’s Batman and Heath Ledger’s menacing enigma, who avoided revealing any definitive past, Phoenix’s take on the character starts off more benign, ineffectual, and mentally ill before Jokering out. Rather than a demented mastermind, he appears to be a more street-level creepy loser who snaps. He also lives with and cares for his dementia-ravaged mother, which complicates our conception of this comic book villain.
In between trips to Arkham Asylum (for therapy?), the character is depicted as a sign-twirling street clown by day and a wannabe stand-up comedian by night. The sleazy 1970’s New York-ish milieu that this Gotham appears to be, paired with the dank minimalism of the Joker’s apartment recall Taxi Driver, while that film’s star, Robert De Niro, appears here as a TV host, a possible nod to his role in another Martin Scorsese movie, King of Comedy. That film was about a failed comedian who eventually goes ballistic, which seems to be a running thread in this film too.
Elsewhere in the trailer, Phoenix’s character gets kicked out of a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a film about an overwhelmed guy who keeps getting sent to prison en route to becoming a performer. A cover of “Smile,” a song Chaplin wrote for that film, plays throughout the trailer. At one point, we also see Phoenix contorting his emaciated body and showcasing his bony chest in a way that looks a lot like scenes from The Machinist, which starred none other than former Caped Crusader Christian Bale. And I might be looking extra hard for easter eggs after seeing Us recently, but it’s hard to look at a long outdoor staircase and not think of The Exorcist.
Get ready to have more fun deciphering the film and its references when Joker hits theaters this October.