This Joker is no laughing matter

The long-awaited film about the Batman supervillain is drenched in style and pathos, and is sure to disturb

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. (Photo © 2018 Warner Bros)

What makes Joker one of the most anticipated films of 2019? Apart from it depicting the origin of one of the most popular villains in all of pop culture and starring talented actor Joaquin Phoenix, this is the kind of film that breaks new ground for DC movies and certain kinds of superhero cinema in general.

  • Joker
  • Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
  • Directed by Todd Phillips

This is not the kind of comic-book movie that welcomes cosplay, or toys, or family celebration. It's actually not meant to be a superhero film the way you would traditionally think of comic-book DC superhero films like Batman V Superman, Wonder Woman, or the Justice League movies.

Joker is an exceptionally ambitious project from writer and director Todd Phillips, which focuses on the most popular comic-book villain of all time, but without any ties to the broader DC Universe. Instead, this is a high-octane R-rated crime drama in a dark, realistic tone, and digs deep into character study and meditation on a single character in this tale of madness, revenge and betrayal.

Honestly, by looking at his long timeline of goofy comedy movies -- namely, the Hangover trilogy, Due Date, Starsky & Hutch, and more recently War Dogs -- Phillips is probably not the first person you would think of to direct a Joker movie. But after watching the film, it's apparent that he definitely had an angle and a unique vision for what he was creating.

In Joker, Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man who is just about as down on his luck as he can get. He's a social outcast who lives in a dilapidated apartment with his fragile mother Penny (Frances Conro). Arthur is a failed clown at his work during the day, and a failed stand-up comedian at night. While he can't hold down any job, he is also struggling with mental illness, depression and emotional incontinence (uncontrollable episodes of laughing is one of them).

Despite his hope to be noticed and bring joy to people as a comedian, he has a bleak outlook on life. There's a scene where we see Arthur talking to his psychiatrist about his condition and all his dark thoughts, and it's scrawled in his journal, "I hope my death makes more cents than my life". This is almost a perfect profile of the birth of a serial killer, and here, we get to witness his descent into becoming and fully embracing the Joker persona later in the film.

Joker is set in 1981, Gotham. It's during a time when there is a garbage strike so the whole city is basically a dump. The environment designed for Gotham in this film parallels that specific era of New York City in the 70s. There is also extreme levels of poverty, the distance between the wealthy and the struggling reflecting what's happening in society today.

I found this to be a gorgeous-looking movie. The cinematography is absolutely on-point. And despite how dark and depressing it is, it's an incredibly colourful movie. Every single shot looks like it has been done with care, and was such a treat to look at. Even if you happen to dislike the movie, there's no denying the absolute beauty of the way the film is shot.

As the title suggests, this movie is Phoenix's show. The story stays with the main character for, like, 95% of the time, yet he still manages to command our attention in every single frame. This is by far the most mesmerising performance delivered by Phoenix. He's successfully brought this iconic villain to life.

Some may debate his performance with the classic Joker versions of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. But trust me, Phoenix's version will definitely take you to different place. He's committed 100% to his character, not just psychologically but physically, too. There were certain shots in the film that show the contortion of his skeletal body with some unnatural poses -- something that reminded me a lot of Christian Bale's skeletal appearance in The Machinist. And it was actually horrifying and disturbing to watch.

Robert De Niro has a significant presence as Murray Franklin, a famous talk-show host Arthur admires. De Niro isn't in the movie by accident. The mood and tone of Joker is obviously like a supervillain homage to Martin Scorsese films such as Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy, both of which starred De Niro in the lead role. His appearance here is very effective.

Other players, like Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz, are just wonderful in their roles as Arthur's mother and love interest, respectively. Although their roles are relatively small, they do get enough moments to shine.

As a graphically violent tale with a villain as its lead character, the film will generate divided opinions. Some will say it's going to inspire violence. But no, you're not meant to root for the main character like this. That's not what this movie is about. At first you may sympathise with the character, but as he shows more and more rage, the very same thing that makes you feel sorry for him now starts to get super-scary -- and this turnaround is done brilliantly.

And by the time the movie is over, you will find yourself fully invested and ready to watch his journey continue. Well, if there's ever another one.