The film follows Fleck’s journey as he is fired from his clown job, fails at comedy, gets kicked around and finds out startling facts about his life from his mother. There seem to be few sane people in his world, including himself, and the series of daily disappointments and humiliations, coupled with his evident psychosis, finally drive him to vigilantism, vengeance and violence.
Phoenix is brilliant as Joker, radiating pure mania and a mocking evilness as he transforms from a meek loser to a character almost amazed by the power of his random villainy. His emaciated body and elastic face enhance the intensity of his performance; his deranged dance on the steps in a later scene, dressed in a maroon suit, is a moment of cinematic beauty. It’s almost enough to overlook the fact that the television host Franklin is played by the celebrated Robert De Niro in a film that pays homage to two of the Oscar-winner’s best-known classics, The King of Comedy. With this role, Phoenix, a three-time Oscar nominee, could soon be holding his first Academy Award.
As the Joker’s violent actions become tabloid fodder, he finds he has amassed a following of anarchist malcontents, who look like they’ve been recruited from causes that are currently trendy, with many wearing the familiar Anonymous masks and raging against capitalism. He’s happy to let them do his bidding, unbidden, as they torch, loot and run riot. This is where the film treads on shaky ground — although Phillips portrays the anarchists, and of course Joker, as the bad guys, the script does leave room to feel a twinge of sympathy for Fleck and the rioting scenes, including disturbing attacks on police officers, can come off looking cathartic rather than criminal. In societies dealing with protests and gun violence — in July 2012, a gunman killed 12 and injured several dozen people at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, a Batman movie, and called himself the Joker in one of the worst mass shootings in the US in recent years — that tone could be troubling.
TIFF is seen as the traditional kick-off of the awards season and festival audiences have often correctly picked Oscar favourites. On that score, however, Joker drew a tough hand in Toronto. It didn’t even make the top three in the TIFF Grolsch People’s Choice Awards for best film. Will Joker have the last laugh next February?
Joker is scheduled for an October 2, 2019 theatrical release