Todd Phillips' standalone origin story of an iconic arch-nemesis stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a man disregarded by society. Joker is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.
Shocking in its originality and intensity, Joker is a game changer for so-called comic book movies. Showcasing a fully immersed performance from Joaquin Phoenix and a new vision of world building, Todd Phillips' latest is an unsettling, exciting portrait of the villain we thought we knew.
Phillips and Scott Silver's original screenplay isn't an adaptation of any previous part of the DC Comics canon, though its reference points will reward fans. The setting is 1981 Gotham City, inspired by New York of the same era, so mythologized on film for its colour, crime, and corruption.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) ekes out a living as a clown, performing for tourists and children as he dreams of fame as a stand-up comedian like his hero, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But people never do what Arthur wants them to do, his inner torment eats at him, and his ailing mother keeps harping on everything she is owed by her former employers, the Wayne family. Life is so ugly that you just have to laugh.
As Arthur descends into the unhinged killer he must become, Phoenix keeps us on edge as he reveals the soul of a man in crisis. A tentative romance with his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz, also at the Festival in Lucy in the Sky and Seberg) grows more dangerous with each encounter.
Part of the pleasure of watching Joker stems from its technical brilliance. Its production design and cinematography capture the supersaturated grit of a rotting Gotham. Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver course quite recognizably through the film's veins. And Hildur Guðnadóttir's score contributes to the feverish effect. This movie is proof that even the most familiar can begin anew.