Joker (NC16)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy

Directed by Todd Phillips  

A comic-book movie for adults, Joker is a gritty, grim and subversive character study of an iconic super-villain, filtered through the sensibilities of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet (think Taxi Driver meets Network). Megalomaniac plotting, spandex wardrobe, fancy schmancy gadgets, and a climactic scuffle that leads to epic property damage — there’s none of those here. 

Joaquin Phoenix is rivetting as heck as Arthur Fleck, a screwy social outcast and aspiring stand-up comic who would someday rise up through the ranks to become Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime and one of Batman’s greatest nemeses; watching him slowly losing grip on reality is a sight to behold — painful and mesmerising. 

Todd Phillips’ standalone origin story — which isn’t linked to any of the Batman movies, including the upcoming one with Robert Pattinson — opened to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival where it went on to win the coveted Golden Lion. 

Reviews are understandably polarising; some folks aren’t too thrilled that Joker is overly sympathetic to a bad guy (Fleck is a victim of child abuse, state neglect, and economic disparity) while others express concern that it stigmatises people with mental illness. 

I have mixed feelings about Joker. I don’t dislike the movie. I like parts of it. I admire the production values. Sometimes I wonder if it's trying too hard to be a Scorsese homage. Elsewhere, a few scenes just leave a weird taste in my mouth, like the bit where Fleck does the hero walk, after committing a heinous act, in Joker’s signature purple suit to the stomping beats of convicted pedophile singer Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll Part 2’. Are we supposed to cheer him on?

Or am I overthinking things? Especially in the tail end when we have reasons to suspect that Fleck isn’t the reliable narrator we thought he is. So everywhere that happened before was for nothing? So fascinating and frustrating. (***)

For more thoughts on Joker, listen to our chat with Daniel Martin on CNA938’s Trending.

Photos: Warner Bros Pictures