MOVIE REVIEW: Phoenix takes Joker to the heart of darkness
Director Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Rating MA 15+
Running time 122 minutes
Verdict The heart of darkness
Joaquin Phoenix isn't so much an actor as a moral contortionist in this mesmerising origin story. His visceral, provocative and disturbingly empathetic performance bends the Joker into an unfamiliar new shape.
Heath Ledger won an Oscar with the hand he had been dealt - as the supporting villain to Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight. But Phoenix, who lost 23.5kg for the role, is playing with a full deck - the young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) and his father Thomas (Brett Cullen) are merely bit players in this story.
Arthur "Happy" Fleck (Phoenix) lives in a rundown New York apartment with his bedridden mother, to whom he is devoted. Suffering from a strange medical disorder, which causes him to laugh, hysterically at awkward or inappropriate moments - the result is somewhere between a cackle and a howl - Fleck ekes out a basic living as a clown.
In a society as dysfunctional as that of Gotham City, Fleck's social awkwardness is a magnet for bullies.
In Joker's opening scene, a bunch of feral teenage boys first steal his sign, and then beat him to a pulp in an alley after he gives chase. (Tellingly, no passer-by intervenes). This is echoed, sometime later, by a second incident in which Fleck is baited, on the subway, by three entitled City types (all of whom, it later transpires, work for Wayne).
But perhaps even more damaging are the smaller, everyday acts of unkindness Fleck experiences, such as the woman on the bus who tells him not to bother her child when he makes faces to amuse the kid, who is staring at him. It's a chilling illustration of what it might be like to live in a world without compassion.
"The worst thing about mental illness," Fleck writes in his admittedly unhinged journal, "is that people expect you to behave as if you don't."
Fleck's already precarious relationship with the world spirals further out of control when his hero, a TV talk show host (Robert De Niro), ridicules the would-be stand-up comedian's disastrous open mike session on national TV.
Either that incident, or his mother's long-kept secret, pushes him over the edge.
A violent outcome is guaranteed by the Chekhovian gun, slipped to Fleck by an oily co-worker.
There's nothing particularly cartoon-like about director Todd Phillips' (The Hangover) version of Gotham. His depiction of an alienated underclass struggling to stay afloat in world driven by greed and self-interest feels eerily topical.
The similarities between Wayne, a self-made businessman running for the mayoral office, and US President Donald Trump are obvious.
And there are strong parallels between the angry riots in Gotham and recent anti-capitalist protests at the G7 summit in Biarritz. But what marks Joker apart from any other film in its genre is the seductive ambivalence of its central character's metamorphosis.
Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver plot Fleck's inexorable journey from victim to aggressor with shocking precision. And Phoenix's charismatic performance gives us a glimpse of what this toxic version of empowerment might feel like.
Joker renders a term like "bad guy" manifestly inadequate.
Opens October 3