Owing much to the darkness of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) and ‘The King of Comedy’ (1983), Todd Phillips has crafted a dread filed, the hypnotic nightmare of a film containing the finest performance ever given by Joaquin Phoenix. Knowing he has been brilliant onscreen before in ‘Gladiator’ (2000), ‘The Yards’ (2003), ‘Walk the Line’ (2005), ‘Two Lovers’ (2009) and until this his finest work as Freddie Quell in ‘The Master’ (2012), calling his performance in ‘Joker’ his finest is no small feat. The actor dominates the film, in the same manner, Robert De Niro did as Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), the madness is lurking just beneath the surface about to be unleashed.
An origin film, the film traces how Arthur became Joker, living with his delusional mother in a filthy apartment, working as a clown at store closings, children’s hospitals, wherever he can find work. At night he hones his comedy act, acting out his time on a popular Late Night TV show hosted by Murray Phillips (Robert De Niro). Though attracted to a pretty single mom down the hall Arthur does nothing and let’s life push him around. Arthur is cursed with a condition that sees him burst into gales of laughter, much like Tourette’s but understandably frightening or even upsetting to experience.
Fired from his job for dropping a gun during his act at a kids hospital, he reacts with rage. While riding the subway, three upwardly mobile Wall Street types start to pick on him and knock him down. He responds by shooting them dead, leaving the scene and becoming infamous for his act. He discovers only murder truly allows him to feel alive, that and the chaos and mayhem caused by his acts. Invited on the show he obsesses over after a tape of him bombing at a comedy club is shown nationally, it is here that Joker fully emerges in a stunning sequence.
Three great actors have soared portraying this part, Jack Nicholson in ‘Batman’ (1989), Heath Ledger won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), and now Phoenix. There was a decent attempt by Jared Leto in ‘Suicide Squad’ (2017) but he comes nowhere near the level of the aforementioned three. Phoenix creates a character that we absolutely believe will evolve into the Ledger performance, it is just astonishing. The night after his first three murders he stands to do tai chi, seemingly cleansing himself of the murderous vibes, but is more likely bathing in the feeling, reborn into a new homicidal man.
Robert De Niro gives a strong performance as the host of the talk show, a decent guy who makes the terrible mistake of mocking Alfred and the making fun of him. Frances Conroy is fine as Arthur’s unstable mother, but this film belongs dark heart and black soul to Phoenix. In nearly every scene, he is its heart of darkness, and that laugh, that maniacal cackle sounds like it has exploded straight from hell.
Loyal readers are very aware I am sick to death of the comic book or superhero genre. However, if they were all as darkly brilliant as this, I would become a fan very quickly. Todd Phillips directs boldly, taking his time, letting the performance of Phoenix take hold of the audience and make us uneasy. It does not take long, and the time bomb that is Joker, this creature with napalm in his veins explodes into utter madness. Extraordinary in every way. Among the years best films, Phoenix leaps to the front of the Best Actor category with this masterwork in performance art.
The Cinemawala Rating: 4/5
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