Joker ★★★★½

Reflecting on the febrile reaction to JOKER after seeing it, I was struck by how many commentators and critics didn't seem to take into account that the film is the origin story of a comic book character, and a supervillain at that. Unless the explanation of such a character's origins is merely that they were "born evil" or that their villainy needs no explanation — and this latter approach was Christopher Nolan's when directing Heath Ledger in DARK KNIGHT, in which The Joker was an anarchic force who just wanted to watch the world burn and who kept changing his tune as to his origins —  then any serious character study will require allowing the audience to peer into the villain's mindset. The point is to make some attempt at empathising with them so as to understand what makes them tick, without having to leave moral judgements at the door.

Immeasurably aided by Joaquin Phoenix's mesmerising turn as the alienated and mentally disturbed Arthur Fleck, Todd Phillips (still hard to get my head around this being the same director as the one who made the often hilarious but ultimately uneven HANGOVER movies) does just that, hewing to the broken Fleck's point of view right down to his fantasies and delusions. The film makes obvious its debts to Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY in terms of portraying a Gotham City (standing in for New York) of the early 1980s in the throes of political paralysis and social decay. But because it's a supervillain movie the logic is not that of our world but one in which good and evil are opposed as symbolic individuals rather than concrete social forces or structures.

Fleck's paranoid rage at repeatedly having his (completely unrealistic) aspirations blocked and beaten down is given a plausible basis in the revelations that emerge about his early life. The sense of his being oppressed from all sides is vividly portrayed, such that it is hard not to feel pulled into Joker's agony while also revulsed at its implications. The violence is never pretty, even though by hewing so close to Arthur's worldview we are never allowed to feel empathy for others. But that inability to understand others is precisely the point, and the psychological clues as to why Joker can't connect are far from subtle as long as you're willing to look his internal world in the face, rather than merely standing outside judging it.

Phillips's direction is taught and the drama is heightened by some bravura cinematography and editing and a great score (by Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir) alongside powerful sound design (the latter ably reflecting the fluctuations in Joker's psyche). There are great performances from the rest of the cast, including Frances Conroy as Arthur's ailing mother, Zazie Beetz as his neighbour and possible love interest, Robert De Niro as a talk show host who Arthur idolises and in whom he hopes to find a father figure, Brett Cullen as billionaire Thomas Wayne who is running for mayor to save Gotham from itself, and Bill Camp and Shea Whigham (both perfectly typecast!) as detectives on Arthur's tail.

Because this is a comic book film, Joker's Manichean outlook not only crystallises through his experiences; it also grows to be a force of its own, unleashing copycat protests and riots that threaten to tear Gotham apart and feeding his transformation from powerless put-upon schmuck to devastatingly effective killing machine. Again because it is a comic book movie his newfound superpowers also alchemically produce their antithesis. Arthur Fleck's least funny joke, which shocks a talk show audience and comes brutally to life in a dark alley during the film's denouement, turns out to be on him.