Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro. Length 122 minutes. Rotten Tomatoes 68%
Eight minutes of applause and a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Buzz that Joaquin Phoenix is a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar. A controversy amongst comic book fans about whether the film is faithful to its DC origins. A controversy about the legitimacy of violence in cinema. A controversy about the depiction of mental illness. In short, Joker has everything it need to be the movie of the year.
The prize at Venice is well deserved. From a cinematographic point of view, Joker is superb. Director Todd Philips (Hangover, Road Trip) was given absolute freedom to create the origin story of Joker, the legendary arch-rival assassin clown of Batman. In Philips’ powerful character-centric script, mentally ill Arthur Fleck tries to make a living by making others laugh in an increasingly hostile, dark and violent Gotham City.
This is a very ambitious portrait, psychologically and sociologically. The film enters the innermost folds of the Joker’s fears, his desires and his memories. Joker talks openly about his mental illness, paternity, poverty and its consequences, the need for affection and the pain of marginalization.
This tapestry allows you to understand the villain – to understand him, not to justify him. The film doesn’t turns a mad villain into a sympathetic hero. But it helps us to understand that behind every hero or villain there is a free decision to opt for good or evil.
To give life to this complex character you need an actor at the height of his powers – and that is Joaquin Phoenix. He spends almost 120 minutes setting the screen on fire. The film was a physical as well as a professional challenge for him. Phoenix lost 23 kilos to give vulnerability to his character. He immersed himself in a study of mental illness and on-screen makes stunning swings from laughter to tears, from coldness to violence, from sadism to tenderness. Sometimes the film becomes so intense a nightmare that it is hard to watch.
The script and the acting alone are enough to make Joker a great movie. But there’s more — an amazing colour palette, stunning photography, and a spectacular soundtrack.
I’ll leave the debates to you. Just bear in mind that Joker is not a superhero movie for kids. It is an adult story of a particularly violent villain. Although cast in a kind of DC parallel universe, Philips says that he created the story with one foot in the comic book world and another in the real world. They converge on the truth that the path of violence — however understandable it sometimes may be — always hurls us over a precipice.