A comic-book film like no other, Joker is a staggering achievement. Closer in tone to the bleak Frank Miller-penned tales from the 1980s that explored the darker side of DC Comics's Dark Knight, writer-director Todd Phillips has crafted an origin story of Batman's greatest nemesis, the Joker, that ranks as one of the most disturbing and incendiary mainstream movies in years. It's also a brilliant piece of filmmaking, every choice, every cut, seemingly perfect.
Joaquin Phoenix, in one of the most compelling performances of his career, plays Arthur Fleck, a lonely professional clown living in Gotham City. It's a seething metropolis; the dustbin men are on strike and the sewers are overrun with oversized rats. You can practically smell the stench, so evocative is the film's creation of an urban hell that resembles New York City in the late 1970s. Worse, you can feel the rage; violence seeps through every pore.
As the film opens, Fleck is beaten by a gang of children. His colleagues think he's "weird" – he has a "condition" that causes him to laugh involuntarily. He lives in a dingy apartment with his fragile, housebound mother (Frances Conroy), isolated from the cruel world around him. There is a social worker who he speaks to, but she soon informs him that their sessions are being cancelled due to citywide cuts. In an age when mass shootings have tragically become somewhat the norm, in the US at least, this feels like a psychological road map for the lone wolf shooters who have come to dominate the news – initial reviews have criticised the film for "glorifying" violence.
The film's cinematic touchstones are writ large, notably Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Phoenix, sitting on his sofa bare-chested, playing with the pistol he's come to acquire, immediately recalls Robert De Niro's fractured Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle in the former. That Fleck also fantasises about a career in stand-up comedy recalls the latter, echoing De Niro's Rupert Pupkin. As if to underline the point, De Niro is cast here, as Murray Franklin, a talk-show host who will inadvertently contribute to Fleck's transition into the Joker.
While Phoenix is no stranger to playing unhinged men – see his turns in The Master and You Were Never Really Here – as far as Phillips goes, nothing in his back catalogue comes anywhere close to Joker. Best known for The Hangover trilogy, his career in frat-boy comedy will not prepare you for what's to come. It's the bleakest comic book-inspired movie since The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second Batman movie, which featured Heath Ledger as – guess who? – the Joker.
In a way, Joker's tangential connections to the Batman universe – wealthy industrialist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father to a young Bruce, is seen as the main villain here – are the least interesting aspects. We can only hope that Warner Bros does not attempt a sequel, pitting Phoenix's fully formed Joker against Batman. Joker is a film about the disenfranchised, the poor, the stepped-on; anything more would feel wrong.
It's why the film feels so potentially explosive, with Fleck's transformation into a Gotham vigilante seen as a symbol for striking back against the 1 per cent. Whatever it's consequences, there can be no question that Joker is a supreme work. Phoenix, with his cadaverous torso and curiously unhinged dance moves (yes, the Joker loves a soft-shoe shuffle at times), conjures a deliciously physical performance. Aided by Hildur Gudnadottir's incredible score, an unnerving composition that warns us trouble is coming from its very first notes, the comic-book movie will never be the same again.