By Adam Ray Palmer
It’s finally here, the review I couldn’t wait to write before the festival began. And now, after seeing Joker this morning, I am even more ecstatic to be penning this.
Directed by Hollywood veteran Todd Phillips from his script, also co-written with Scott Silver; Joker stars the consistently remarkable Joaquin Phoenix alongside the legend Robert De Niro and the up and coming Zazie Beetz.
This movie has been a fair few years in the making. There’s been cast dropouts, production company knockbacks and lots of talent negotiation. After all these trials and tribulations, Warner Bros then had to beg for this film, from the newly launched DC Black Universe, to be put in competition here at the Venice Film Festival. Lo and behold, here we are!
Set in 1981, this original standalone origin story details the “rise” of the iconic villain, Joker, not seen before on the big screen. This is a tenacious character study of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, and a broader cautionary tale.
Phoenix took some genuine convincing to do this film, around four months of talks in fact, before finally agreeing to show the world his take on the ‘Clown of Crime’. What’s unique with this version, is that it’s an origin story about a character that doesn't have a definitive origin. Phillips’s movie centres on Arthur Fleck being a failed stand-up comedian and constantly receiving public humiliation. Whether this be on a stage, from his favourite talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) or in the street where he is continually mocked, and twice beaten up in the space of a few days.
This of course takes its toll on Fleck. With his fragile state of mind since a young boy, he turns to a life of crime and chaos in Gotham City, slowly rising to become a frightening legend. His rapid rise from a nobody to a somebody is truly mesmeric on screen. Arthur Fleck is full of heartache, misery and a completely broken loner. Yet Joker is egotistical, brutal and unforgiving. His pathological laugh throughout is extremely disconcerting.
The performance from Phoenix is haunting. He ensures on delivering a Joker rendition that you have never seen before. Heath Ledger certainly has the memorable performance for an unhinged Joker, with Jared Leto being the most recent chuckle villain. But Phoenix, for me, adds something completely new to the character, cementing this disturbed individual as one of most iconic villains ever.
Phoenix had been interested in a low-budget "character study" of a comic book character, and commented that this film "feels unique, it is its own world in some ways, and maybe It might as well be the thing that scares you the most". Phoenix also lost 52 pounds in preparation for this role, with his skeletal body simply adding to the troubled persona of Fleck. It’s a masterful performance from Joaquin, certainly up there as a career best. He is one of the best actors working today, a god amongst men!
Todd Phillips received a fair bit of scrutiny even before the titles rolled on this picture, simply because a few critics and fans thought he wouldn’t be up to the job as his background is primarily comedy (Due Date, Hangover series). Well, alongside the impressive cinematographer Lawrence Sher, Todd really served up quite the dark and twisted movie. The framing is exquisite, it’s like we are luring in on a man going mad in front of our eyes, but at the same time feeling like trapped bystanders in this spiralling downfall.
Hildur Guðnadóttir, an Icelandic composer, perfectly worked alongside Phillips and Sher. Hildur’s troubling score is constantly lingering in the background, slowly building the tense atmosphere. The more anxious sequences are elevated dramatically by her sharp cello chords. This soundtrack is a must-own when it becomes available with some corking tracks like ‘That’s Life’, ‘Send in the Clowns’ and ‘Smile’.
On all fronts, Joker delivers. It’s much more subtle than any comic book origin story before – it’s a vivid and intense analysis of a distressed man. It repeatedly feels uneasy, uncomfortable and edgy from start to finish. Phoenix is the perfect actor to have donned the green hair and red-painted smile. The one inner-quarrel I am having with myself is this: I want so much more from a Joaquin Joker, but I’m also desperate for this to be left as a standalone masterpiece. I’m just so glad that all parties took this on, and I can’t wait for my second viewing. I loved this picture, it helped me ‘put on a happy face’…
Cineroom’s rating: 5 stars
Joker will be released in the UK on 4th October – certificate 18