The Joker’s wild and plagued with a neurological condition that compels him to burst into fits of maniacal giggling in director Todd Phillips’s profoundly disturbing character study.
Co-written by Scott Silver, this relentlessly grim portrait of mental illness and societal neglect burrows deep beneath the translucent, bone-stretched skin of Batman’s adversary, several years before the Caped Crusader dons a cowl.
While Christopher Nolan’s brooding Dark Knight trilogy underpinned muscular thrills with sustained menace, earning Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar as a schizophrenic clown devoid of empathy, Phillips’s deep-dive into the DC Comics universe shrugs off the action-oriented demands of a conventional blockbuster to focus on the psychological destruction of its chief antagonist.
“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) asks an impassive social worker at the beginning of the film.
Phoenix’s ferocious and uncompromising performance gambols through a fug of delusions and horrifying selfrealisation that gives birth to an anarchistic revolutionary with nothing to lose.
Rubbish bags clutter Gotham’s streets on the 10th day of a citywide collectors’ strike as Arthur studiously applies white face make-up and an exaggerated red smile. A gang of youths steals the advertising board he has been hired to twirl in colourful apparel and viciously beats the mentally unstable loner when he chases them down an alley.
Arthur returns home, bloodied and bruised, to his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy), a former employee of billionaire philanthropist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who has announced his candidacy for mayor.
Penny unintentionally drizzles scorn on her son’s dream of performing stand-up – “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” – and Arthur seeks comfort in the nightly broadcast of talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who he fancifully imagines as the doting father he never had.
An impromptu act of violence on a subway train propels Arthur into the glare of the media’s eye. “Those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those that haven’t, and see nothing but clowns,” sneers Thomas Wayne on the campaign trail.
As Gotham teeters on the brink of insurrection and a young Bruce Wayne (Dante PereiraOlson) sees the lawlessness firsthand, Arthur becomes a grinning poster boy for the downtrodden, discarded and disenfranchised.
Joker is deeply disquieting, capturing the anti-establishment sentiment that has shaken mainstream political establishments to their foundation. An emaciated Phoenix electrifies every scene, dragging us kicking and silently screaming to the edge of insanity.
Explosions of violence serve the tightly wound narrative and are often graphic, but no more so than the final 15 minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood.
Like the persistent itch you can’t quite scratch, Phillips’s picture commands forceful, complete attention and continues to pucker the skin with goosebumps long after the end credits roll.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful performance as Arthur Fleck
Joaquin Phoenix, below, and Robert De Niro, above, in Todd Phillips’s Joker