For the first time, the man who laughs gets the star spot all to himself. Featuring a phenomenal and deeply disturbing Joaquin Phoenix, the solo story Joker is on the surface the origin of a supervillain but more subtly an exploration of empathy and the personal impact of a society devoid of it.
In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix digs into the title role, kicks out the jams, and stamps the character with danger all his own. “Phenomenal” is a puny word to describe his gut-punch performance. Laughing maniacally, dancing on a stairway to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” and twisting his face and body into contortions that defy physics, Phoenix is a virtuoso of unleashed id. You don’t dare look away from him.
Joker centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips' exploration of Arthur Fleck (Joker), who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham's fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night down and out in what looks like 1980s Gotham but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.
Co-written and directed by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” trilogy), it’s a psychological thriller and dark character study that draws inspiration from throwback films like “Taxi Driver,” “Network” and “The King of Comedy” and reflects modern societal divisions but also has the grand ambition of a comic book movie. Except there are no heroes here at all: “Joker” is at times predictable and too familiar given the source material, yet it splendidly captures the essence of the iconic bad guy as a frighteningly unreliable narrator in the movie’s best moments.
Much has been made, by Warner, of the fact that this is meant as a “standalone” film that has no narrative connection to other pictures in the DC Universe. Maybe what they really mean is that this is the first and last DC movie that’s going to be rated R. A rating it thoroughly earns. The violence in this movie means to shock, and it does perfectly so.
Joker gives its infamous central character a chillingly plausible origin story that serves as a brilliant showcase for its star -- and a dark evolution for comics-inspired cinema.