Believe the hype! Joker delivers a bold and brilliant subversion of the iconic DC villain that ventures way beyond the comfort zone of comic-book blockbusters, and feels more a part of the Martin Scorsese universe than Batman’s.
Robert De Niro’s supporting role notwithstanding, the spirit of Taxi Driver looms large in Joker as we follow disturbed loner Arthur Fleck’s (Phoenix) descent into madness in a squalid ’80s version of Gotham City that’s modelled on the seedy milieu of New York’s 42nd Street. It’s a grotty and grim character study that will make you want to shower afterwards.
A clown for hire who suffers from pathological laughter, Arthur’s uncontrollable cackling at inopportune moments makes him a target for physical abuse and ridicule. He’s a tragic figure with dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, but when one of his work colleagues slips him a gun for protection, it’s the catalyst for an even greater calling, as Gotham’s lower classes rally against the spectre of capitalism, personified by industrialist and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne.
The Taxi Driver allusion is taken a step further when Arthur develops an obsession with Wayne and a fixation on a female neighbour. But while Joker riffs on Scorsese (De Niro’s talk show host is a reversal of his King of Comedy character), it also evokes cult-horror flicks like Maniac (1980) and Don’t Go in the House (1979), whose mama’s boy protagonists’ slow-burn psychosis inevitably leads to cathartic and bloody violence.
Phoenix is adept at inhabiting disturbed characters (most notably in The Master and You Were Never Really Here), not to mention his personal segue into eccentricity that led to a bizarre appearance on Letterman in 2009. His frighteningly fantastic performance here is a career best, accentuated by a painful physical emaciation that matches the character’s mental disintegration.
Many consider Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight to be the ultimate Joker, but Phoenix gives us the definitive take on Gotham’s supervillain – one that is also surely destined for Academy gold.
In cinemas: October 3, 2019
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy
Directed by: Todd Phillips