Fresh from its critical success and pioneering Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival, Joker appears on course for Oscar glory. And the critical reactions coming out of the Toronto Film Festival only support this claim.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker refashions the Clown Prince of Crime's origin story as a sobering study of mental health and isolation. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comic who, via a combination of his own neuroses and cruel treatment by Gotham City's inhabitants, begins his transformation into a feared criminal anarchist.
The movie is set in the 1980s in a trash-filled, despairing version of Gotham where many citizens have been marginalised. Robert De Niro plays the arrogant stand-up host whom Fleck idolises, Zazie Beetz is Fleck's sympathetic neighbour, and Frances Conroy is his ill mother, who writes pleading letters to the employer who sacked her, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen).
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The consistent element that has wowed critics is Phoenix's performance – it's been described as disturbing, animalistic and remarkable a la his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Phoenix's casting is a clear sign of the movie's prestige ambitions – this is no ordinary comic book movie but a thriller with thorny moral issues on its mind.
We've rounded up a few of the critical raves – plus some dissenting voices who have taken issue with the movie. We'll start with the good stuff, including this from Indiewire's Eric Kohn.
JOKER doesn’t reinvent the comic book movie, but it’s certainly the scariest one — a taut psychological thriller w/a few horror movie twists. Joaquin Phoenix, though, yikes: Looks like he stepped out of THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI, or maybe he’s still trapped there. Astounding.— erickohn (@erickohn) September 10, 2019
Collider's Perri Nemiroff says the movie is a memorable and engrossing experience, but also a distressing one.
#Joker is one of the most unnerving movies I've seen in years. Joaquin Phoenix is astounding - the physicality of his work is especially impressive. It's very well made across the board but I also found it very upsetting & right now I can't shake that. Need to sit with this more.— Perri Nemiroff (@PNemiroff) September 10, 2019
Peter Howell, writing for the Toronto Star, says the movie strikes so close to home that the phrase 'comic book movie' ought not to be raised.
#Joker: Wow. Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips summon dark mojo for a descent into madness, for the origin story to beat all origin stories. Forget comic books -- this is disturbingly too close to modern alienation to be dismissed as mere fantasy. #TIFF19 pic.twitter.com/LfmcDfAwE7— Peter Howell (@peterhowellfilm) September 10, 2019
Cinemablend hails the movie as a "brutal" and brilliant experience that makes us re-think the entire comic book genre.
JOKER: The perfect origin story for a lunatic with no origin. Todd Phillips gives DC it’s first true masterpiece. The Clown Prince has never been more deranged, more dangerous, and more real. A brutal work that will have audiences raving. #Joker #JokerMovie #TIFF19 pic.twitter.com/laz2oiy5iw— CinemaBlend (@CinemaBlend) September 10, 2019
Business Insider's Jason Guerrasio says the movie's willingness to engage with themes of sanity and insanity makes it a thought-provoking experience.
#Joker is an extremely ultra violent tale but it’s also a concerning commentary on mental illness, class, feeling ostracized from society. It’s really chilling to watch. #TIFF19 pic.twitter.com/pX6z0DdlI9— Jason Guerrasio (@JasonGuerrasio) September 10, 2019
Film critic Scott Menzel lauds Phoenix's performance as the dark heart of the movie.
JOKER is phenomenal. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is next level. No other performance this year will be able to top this one. There is so much to digest with this film too including its exploration of humanity & mental illness. A Flawless Masterpiece. #JokerMovie #Joker pic.twitter.com/uNIQ11aShV— Scott Menzel @ Toronto International Film Festival (@TheOtherScottM) September 10, 2019
Journalist Beatrice Verhoeven says Phoenix's "astounding" performance leaves one with a lot to chew over.
Needless to say, not everyone is won over by the film. In a particularly outspoken review, Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson questions the film's existence, and says that despite Phoenix's formidable turn, the movie is less than the sum of its parts.
"Joker is a well-made movie, with a killer performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who seems born to play the role," she writes. "But there’s nothing 'bonkers' about it. It has nothing to say about the Joker himself or what he represents, or even about the world in which his brand of evil exists. Go ahead and crack open the movie. It’s hollow to the core."
Slashfilm's Chris Evangelista is critical of the movie's script, describing it as "simplistic", although he says Phoenix's performance is impeccable, as indeed is the whole technical quality of the production.
JOKER: Guys...it’s good. A simplistic script is saved by Phoenix’s great performance, Phillips’ impressive direction, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s moody score, and Lawrence Sher’a gorgeous cinematography. This isn’t just a dark drama, it’s a full-blown horror movie. #TIFF19— Chris Evangelista (@cevangelista413) September 10, 2019
Let's restore a note of order (or disorder, if you will) with this from critic Scott Mantz, who describes this Joker as a terrifying new iteration that owes nothing to the portrayals that have come before.
JOKER: Not your daddy’s #Joker movie. Riveting & engrossing, unnerving & disturbing, intense & very violent. A cross between Taxi Driver, King of Comedy & Network. #JoaquinPhoenix is haunting, very different from Jack & Heath. Need to stew on this one. #TIFF19 pic.twitter.com/L1ySwUgzDO— Scott Mantz (@MovieMantz) September 10, 2019
One thing's for sure: Joker is a movie that has got everyone talking, for good or ill, and that's only set to continue when it's released in Cineworld on 4th October.
Let us know @Cineworld if you think Phoenix's performance will redefine the character in startling and provocative new ways.