By John H. Foote
Easily the years most unexpected hit (one billion dollars and counting) and critical darling, Warner Brothers stunned the film world with Joker especially when it was screened at the three fall festivals, Venice, Telluride and the big one, Toronto, or TIFF. This extraordinary R rated film based on the villain in a famous comic book, a villain portrayed four previous times on film seethed with an inner rage that felt like molten lava as it seeped down into the audience. Like a slow, terrifying burn you saw coming but from which you could escape, the film remains something quite remarkable. No film based on a superhero had ever been like this or had this type of impact on its audience.
Merging Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and topping it off with Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) and fearlessly slamming them together with the superhero genre, or rather a superb villain genre, director Todd Phillips created Joker. Yet it runs deeper than that because I suspect the actor Joaquin Phoenix had a huge impact on how the film was created and it is entirely possible the director built his entire film around the Phoenix performance.
Caesar Romero portrayed Joker as a laughing madman with a penchant for purple coats, Jack Nicholson portrayed the character as a laughing, leering maniac, while Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his chaos minded mad jokester in the finest superhero film ever made The Dark Knight (2008). Jared Leto turned him into a self-centred superhuman, laughing lunatic in his brief moments in Suicide Squad (2016) leaving audiences puzzled more than anything else. Leto sucked all the energy out of every scene, never willing to share that energy with his castmates. When they began casting Joker, Leto was very interested but neither Phillips nor Warner Brothers were…at all.
No one was puzzled after seeing Phoenix. No one had any doubt this was a Joker for the ages. He was astounding, and walking out of that screening room in September at TIFF I was confident I had just seen the performance that would win the Academy Award.
Great acting is all about risk, having the courage to take chances and do things no one else would ever do, or even think of. Somehow, Phoenix went further, deeper and certainly darker than any one of those fine actors. The actor gave himself over to the role in every way, physically and emotionally, taking the audience on a journey into the psyche of a man teetering on the edge of madness, and we are with him as he slips off.
Phillips gives the film the look of a seventies Sidney Lumet film smashed into Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) where the streets of New York (Gotham in the film) were hell on earth. In every frame of the film, Phoenix gives the finest performance of his career, far surpassing The Master (2012) which was astounding. Watch how he moves, his dancing, how the madness takes over every inch of his body, every pore in his face, the sound of his voice, the eyes as they blaze with newfound purpose. Like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976) we can feel and see Arthur’s descent into madness, becoming Joker.
There are strong supporting performances from Frances Conroy as his doomed mother and Robert De Niro as the smug talk show host who lands on the wrong side of Joker’s sense of humour. Make no mistake, Joaquin Phoenix dominates this film in every way.
Nominated for a leading eleven Academy Awards, Joker was the most astonishing surprise of the year. I am still in shock having experienced it five times now. It deepens with each viewing. Unsettling, deeply disturbing and twisted with haunting perversity.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.