The reviews for Joker have rolled in, and it looks as though the Clown Prince of Crime truly doesn’t need the Dark Knight to enthrall audiences. Lets take a look and see.
But this is Phoenix’s film, and he inhabits it with an insanity by turns pitiful and fearsome in an out-there performance that’s no laughing matter. Not to discredit the imaginative vision of the writer-director, his co-scripter and invaluable tech and design teams, but Phoenix is the prime force that makes Joker such a distinctively edgy entry in the Hollywood comics industrial complex.
Phoenix is all in and then some, a performance so dazzling risky and original you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now. No joke, this is a movie — premiering today at the Venice Film Festival — unlike any other from the DC universe, and you will find it impossible to shake off. At least I did.
As Arthur/Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing. Phillips has said he had a picture of the actor above his screen when writing the script and it’s a belief that has paid off. Phoenix inhabits Arthur: having lost weight for the role, he looks thin, frail, hungry. Shadows carve out his exposed bones. His physicality is precise — the way he moves, shuffles, runs, sits, smokes, shrinks. His usual intensity is on full display and it’s captivating, even overwhelming in moments. Comparing him to Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson feels like a nonsense: this is a Joker we’ve never seen — in many respects it isn’t the Joker, it’s Arthur.
Many have asked, and with good reason: Do we need another Joker movie? Yet what we do need — badly — are comic-book films that have a verité gravitas, that unfold in the real world, so that there’s something more dramatic at stake than whether the film in question is going to rack up a billion-and-a-half dollars worldwide. “Joker” manages the nimble feat of telling the Joker’s origin story as if it were unprecedented. We feel a tingle when Bruce Wayne comes into the picture; he’s there less as a force than an omen. And we feel a deeply deranged thrill when Arthur, having come out the other side of his rage, emerges wearing smeary make-up, green hair, an orange vest and a rust-colored suit.
The politics of “Joker” are similarly wobbly; web pundits on all sides of the spectrum will no doubt fish out this idea or that line of dialogue to declaim what “Joker” is “really” about, which ultimately means it’s not really about much of anything at all. It will be tempting for some to declare this the first art film based on a DC or Marvel property, but while it certainly represents a bit of a departure and something of a risk, “Joker” is ultimately grim-and-gritty comic book nihilism jacked up to the nth degree, wrapped up in a convincing but ultimately hollow simulacra of better, smarter movies.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance, fearless and stunning in its emotional depth and physicality. It’s impossible to talk about this without referencing Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance from The Dark Knight, widely considered the definitive live-action portrayal of the Joker, so let’s talk about it. The fact is, everyone is going to be stunned by what Phoenix accomplishes, because it’s what many thought impossible — a portrayal that matches and potentially exceeds that of The Dark Knight’s Clown Prince of Crime.
Joker will hit theaters on Oct. 4.