Note: This review of Joker contains detailed breakdowns of the main character. BUT, there are no spoilers when it comes to the plot of the film.
Todd Phillips' Joker is a relentlessly grim portrait of mental illness and societal neglect that crawls deep beneath the pale, bone-stretched skin of Batman’s arch nemesis, several years before the Caped Crusader dons a cowl.
While Christopher Nolan’s brooding Dark Knight trilogy underpinned muscular thrills with sustained menace, earning Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar, Phillips’s deep-dive into the DC Comics universe shrugs off the action-oriented demands of a typical tent pole blockbuster to focus intently on the psychological destruction of its chief antagonist. I heard people muttering in the foyer after the movie complaining about the lack of action, if you go into this film expecting a spectacle filled comic book film then you're going to be severely dissapointed, Joker is a deep psychological character study that is startlingly refreshing for a comic book movie.
Rubbish bags clutter Gotham’s streets on the 10th day of a city-wide collectors’ strike as Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) studiously applies his clown make-up and an exaggerated red smile. A gang of youths steal the advertising board he has been hired to twirl in colourful apparel and they viciously beat the mentally unstable loner when he chases them down an alley.
Arthur returns home, bloodied and bruised, to his mentally and physically ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy), a former employee of billionaire philanthropist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who has announced his candidacy for mayor.
Penny unintentionally drizzles scorn on her son’s dream of performing stand-up and Arthur seeks comfort in the nightly broadcast of talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who he fancifully imagines as the doting father he never had. A fantastic opening that sets the tone for what's to come.
An impromptu act of violence on a subway train propels Arthur into the glare of the media’s eye. As Gotham teeters on the brink of insurrection and a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) witnesses the lawlessness first-hand, Arthur becomes a grinning poster boy for the downtrodden, discarded and disenfranchised. Joker is deeply disquieting, capturing the anti-establishment sentiment which has shaken mainstream politic establishments to their foundation.
Joaquin Phoenix’s ferocious and uncompromising performance gambols through a fug of delusions and horrifying self-realisation that gives birth to an anarchistic revolutionary with nothing to lose.
An emaciated Phoenix electrifies every scene, dragging us kicking and silently screaming to the edge of insanity. Like the persistent itch you can’t quite scratch, Phillips’s picture commands forceful, complete attention and continues to pucker the skin with goose bumps long after the end credits roll.
★ Masters of Cinema Rating - 4½ Stars ★
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