Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Zazie Beetz
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…delivers one of the more haunting and unique comic book movie experiences in years.
The superhero genre, while often entertaining and crowd-pleasing, can feel a little unambitious at times. Even hardcore fans will likely agree that once a formula is set, it’s adhered to, with very little room for inspiration or subversion. However, every now and then a superhero flick comes along with a little more on its mind. Notable examples include The Dark Knight (2008) and Logan (2017), and now we can add Joker to that list, although not without a couple of qualifications.
Joker tells the tragic tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a spindly, twitchy loner who lives with his sick mum, Penny (Frances Conroy) and is attempting to break into the world of standup comedy. Naturally nothing much goes according to plan for Arthur, and the film traces a dark downward spiral showcasing how an ordinary, unassuming man eventually becomes the Crown Prince of Crime aka The Joker.
To be clear, Joker is an origin story only in the broadest terms. Director Todd Phillips has already gone on record telling media outlets that this incarnation of the iconic baddie is a one-off and we’ll never see them battling Batman while attempting to poison Gotham’s water supply. Consequently, the script is much more focused on the slowburn breakdown of an unfortunate who has fallen through the cracks and seeks solace in delusion. Honestly, the script, co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, is a tad blunt which might be more of a problem if not for the film’s clear selling point: Joaquin Phoenix’s stunning turn in the titular role.
To say Joaquin nails the role is an outrageous understatement, because he delivers a pitch perfect turn, at times vulnerable, manic, tortured and afraid, his body twisting and contorting in a bony dance that’s all elbows, bruised skin and teeth. The sheer sense of discomfort and unease that Phoenix manages to convey, particularly in a relatively mainstream comic book movie, is staggering. Every second he’s on screen is fascinating to watch, so much so that you’ll likely forgive the occasionally by-the-numbers nature of the script.
Todd Phillips’ direction is slick and effective, with numerous visual references and homages to the early works of Scorcese, in particular Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), the latter of which is further reinforced by the casting of Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin. Gotham, also, looks and sounds like New York during the garbage strike of the 1970s, lending the piece a grimy, abandoned feel, seething with vermin and potential violence.
On the downside, Joker does pull some of its punches. Sure, it may reference Taxi Driver, but ultimately this is a property from DC Films and Warner Bros, so if you’re expecting something truly transgressive, you’ve come to the wrong place. And hey, if you want Taxi Driver, go watch Taxi Driver! It’s a great flick and you can probably pick it up for under a tenner these days.
Joker works within the rigid framework of a superhero (or in this case supervillain) movie, because while it may not push the boundaries of cinema in general, it certainly widens the barriers inherent to this specific genre. Paired with a performance that should have the Academy hurling handfuls of Oscars at Joaquin like mad bastards, Joker delivers one of the more haunting and unique comic book movie experiences in years.