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Saturday, 5 October 2019


(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Todd Phillips.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron.

Rocky's new look left something to be desired.
Here it is: the Taxi Driver of comic book movies.

The cinematic superhero era shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the material it is yielding is mutating in new and exciting ways - from the cutting edge animation of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse to the meta-as-fuck Deadpool, from the grrrl power of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel to the grown-up grit of Logan.

But we haven't seen anything like this. Aside from the obvious villain-as-anti-hero focus, Joker is something new and fresh for the genre (the less said about Venomthe better). It's political, provocative, extremely violent, defiantly adult, and dares to make us empathise with a one of comic book's greatest psychopaths. Its antecedents are not the latest slick blockbusters from DC or Marvel, but rather the work of Martin Scorsese, who was rumoured to be an executive producer at one point. Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy are the two touchstones here, and even Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange for the way it examines violence in society and gets us sympathising with a killer (the backlash against Joker is also eerily reminiscent of what followed A Clockwork Orange).

In short, this is a million miles away from the franchise-building box-office smashers pumped out by the two big comic book houses.

It's also the best film of the year to date.

This Joker is Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian with mental health issues who is struggling to care for his mother (Conroy) and make ends meet in an increasingly hostile world. His attempts to get help for his condition fall on deaf ears, and his hometown of Gotham is a powder keg of unrest. Something is about to snap.

How do you make a villain? That's the question at the heart of Joker and it is a compelling one because the answer it suggests is so unnervingly real and contemporary. Although set in the early '80s, its problems are modern. Support for people with mental health issues is often underfunded, the rich get richer and the poor are powerless, and kindness and civility seem to be in short supply. And, perhaps worst of all, violence is always just a breath away.

All these elements shine through in a script that is not about grown men dressing as bats and fighting crime. Shorn of its heritage, this is about a downtrodden member of society's fringes trying to get by, but who is knocked down, ridiculed and beaten up by the world at large. So when he fights back, lashing out violently, you can't help but be in his corner.

This is the great trick Joker pulls - it gets you to barrack for DC's Crown Prince of Crime. Phoenix brings humanity and frailty to the role, but the way the script sucks you into sympathising with him is seductive, and similar to the journey we undertake with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. There are also elements of The King Of Comedy's sadly unfunny Rupert Pupkin in Arthur Fleck, and with De Niro starring as a talk-show host, it's hard to ignore the comparisons. The grit of Taxi Driver and other bleak films of the late '60s and '70s (Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets) shines through in the production design of Gotham and cinematography of Lawrence Sher.

The Joker is beginning to feel like a modern-day equivalent of Macbeth - it's a coveted role that actors dream of playing; of making their own. Phoenix's green-haired monster will inspire debate through the ages: who was better - Phoenix or Ledger? I'll still take Ledger's exciting anarchist, but Phoenix's Joker is more human and less cartoonish.

What is certain is that it is another truly remarkable turn from one of the best actors of this era. In a filmography that already contains Walk The Line, Her, The Master, Gladiator, and Inherent Vice, this is possibly Phoenix's best performance, definitely top three.

Not everyone is going to like Joker. But you can guarantee that people will be talking about this film for a long time to come. It has fascinating things to say, and it says them in a fascinating way. It's shocking and provocative in a way that begs discussion. And when the comic book film "fad" finishes, Joker will be seen as a high-water mark.

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