In the wake of cancelled plans to create a Joker film starring Jared Leto and mediocre critical response to 2016’s Suicide Squad, another Gotham villain film was the last thing audiences expected. Tipped as a psychological thriller and created by Todd Phillips, the man behind the Hangover trilogy, this origin story wasn’t on many “one to watch” lists. However, Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix being cast in the title role, an eight-minute standing ovation and “Best Film” award at the Venice Film Festival this summer certainly gave Joker momentum for it’s October release.
Set in 1980’s Gotham, emotional incontinence sufferer Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), works as a hire-clown and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. His life consists of failure, mockery and abuse, which after a series of mishaps at his job leads Arthur to begin lashing out at the city that seems to be failing him.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a career defining performance as the deficient lead. The weight loss Phoenix has gone through for the role is more than apparent as scenes with Fleck changing into his clown costume show every bone in his frail body, helping paint the picture of a man without a cause. Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck is magnificent; creating the origin of a renown villain to be unassuming and meek appeals an unexpected sympathy for the character’s demise. Every stance, movement, laugh or dance that Phoenix delivers completely embodies the role and is enthralling. Comparisons need not be made for this depiction of The Joker as the film rather shows the story of Arthur Fleck than the fully fledged antagonist.
Supported by powerful cinematography of symmetrical shots and a score led by ominous groans of cellos building tension and a sense of dread, Joker is a masterclass in film-making. A distinct lack of CGI allows this film to concentrate on the demoralisation of Arthur Fleck and the creation of The Joker. Explosions and large set pieces are not missed, but replaced with dramatic sequences birthing the mindless villain that fans already know.
Not only has Todd Phillips created possibly the greatest genesis story whilst (almost) avoiding all superhero/villain origin film clichés, but Joaquin Phoenix has given the character an added depth that was never expected. Joker is dark, gritty and stunning; it is such powerful cinema that isn’t likely to be forgotten for years to come.