It’s impossible to go into Joker without the heavy fog of its insufferable, endless online discourse clouding your view. The ridiculous moral panics and equally silly impassioned defences have already made it an exhausting experience. Putting that to one side, Joker is an effectively disquieting character study featuring a great Joaquin Phoenix performance that doesn’t actually court any of the controversy it’s received.
A gritty reimagining of the origin of Batman’s greatest foe, Joker might technically exist in the DC universe, but it takes liberties and departures from the get go. Gotham has never been more transparently New York than it is here, a ragged ‘80s city plagued by trash strikes and awful Wall Street yuppies. Into this mix is thrown the dangerously mentally unwell Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), whose loss of his job and social worker pushes him down a dark, murderous path.
One could criticise Phoenix for dipping into over-acting, but he makes Arthur a brilliantly skin-crawling figure. His mere existence is uncomfortable for both himself and the people around him, and when Todd Phillips sits back and lets Phoenix work, Joker is legitimately great. Phillips’s attempts at some ‘arthouse’ stylings are less effective, feeling self-conscious, but he does build an effectively unpleasant world that feels actively hostile.
A lot of his shots look fantastic, and though the score is a little heavy-handed, it adds gravitas to proceedings. When violence erupts, it’s brief, bloody, and intimate, hardly the delirious gory explosions of other R-rated comic book movies, and it makes a real impact.
Though it’s not on the same level as Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, Joker’s liberal borrowing from these films gives it weight and purpose. Not the film it was feared to be, Joker instead makes some unexpected points about class systems and social programs, and makes them well.
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Shea Wigham
DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips
WRITERS: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
SYNOPSIS: A gritty character study of Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society.