Movie critics seemingly agree: Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker is no laughing matter (and could soon be headed for Oscar glory).
The Todd Phillips-directed comic book adaptation world-premiered Saturday at the Venice Film Festival, where film journalists praised the 1981-set crime-thriller’s singular approach to the iconic Batman archenemy as “one of the best films of 2019,” according to Forbes‘ Mark Hughes, featuring what IGN‘s Jim Vejvoda calls an “Oscar-worthy performance” from its star.
“Get ready to rethink what’s possible in comic book movies,” Huges writes, adding that the film “ups the ante” previously established by critically lauded comic book movies like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and James Mangold’s Logan. “Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance, fearless and stunning in its emotional depth and physicality. It’s impossible to talk about this without referencing Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance from The Dark Knight, widely considered the definitive live-action portrayal of the Joker, so let’s talk about it. The fact is, everyone is going to be stunned by what Phoenix accomplishes, because it’s what many thought impossible — a portrayal that matches and potentially exceeds that of The Dark Knight’s Clown Prince of Crime.”
Phoenix leads Phillips’ fresh, gritty character study as Arthur Fleck, a societal outcast, amateur clown, and aspiring stand-up comic whose inner turmoil manifests in increasingly violent ways as he cares for his ailing mother (who wishes to get even with her former employers, the Wayne family) while grappling with an ill-intentioned talk show host (Robert De Niro) and a new relationship with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz). Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman calls the tale a “hypnotically perverse, ghoulishly grippingly urban-nightmare comic fantasia” and Phoenix’s performance “astonishing.”
“He appears to have lost weight for the role, so that his ribs and shoulder blades protrude, and the leanness burns his face down to its expressive essence: black eyebrows, sallow cheeks sunk in gloom, a mouth so rubbery it seems to be snarking at the very notion of expression, all set off by a greasy mop of hair,” he continues. “Phoenix is playing a geek with an unhinged mind, yet he’s so controlled that he’s mesmerizing. He stays true to the desperate logic of Arthur’s unhappiness.”
Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney credits Phoenix as he “boldly reinvents” a character many think they know all too well.
“The clown prince of crime is alive and mentally unwell in Gotham City in Todd Phillips’ grippingly atmospheric supervillain origin story, Joker,” reads his review. “While a never-better Joaquin Phoenix paints on the famed maniacal smile with his own blood at one memorable climactic moment of messianic rebirth, what’s most noteworthy about this gritty entry in the DC canon and the lead actor’s sensational performance is the pathos he brings to a pathetically disenfranchised character — just like countless others in a metropolis in which the social chasm separating the haves from the have-nots has become a pit of incendiary rage.”
In a negative review, however, IndieWire‘s David Ehrlich calls the project “unquestionably the boldest reinvention of ‘superhero’ cinema since The Dark Knight,” and “a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century,” though he calls Phillips a “glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.”
Still, he says Phoenix’s “hypnotic and inimitable performance would feel completely new if it didn’t borrow so much from his past work [as if] Freddie Quell and Theodore Twombly stepped into the teleportation machine from The Fly.“
Joker hits theaters Friday, Oct. 4, following its planned pre-Oscar stop at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Read on for more reviews of the movie out of the 2019 Venice Film Festival (which continues through Sept. 7) below.
Mark Hughes (Forbes)
“Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance, fearless and stunning in its emotional depth and physicality. It’s impossible to talk about this without referencing Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance from The Dark Knight, widely considered the definitive live-action portrayal of the Joker, so let’s talk about it. The fact is, everyone is going to be stunned by what Phoenix accomplishes, because it’s what many thought impossible — a portrayal that matches and potentially exceeds that of The Dark Knight’s Clown Prince of Crime.”
Terri White (Empire)
“This could, particularly in the current climate, be viewed as a lament for outsiders and the ignored. That’s too simple and Joker does anything but deliver you easy answers. It’s a sad, chaotic, slow-burn study of someone who isn’t visible; who doesn’t even exist to the world around them. But your empathy, sympathy even, isn’t guaranteed, and it begins to dissolve as Arthur somehow moves even further to the edges. This is, we mustn’t forget, the story of how a villain was made. But what writer/director Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) have written into life is the Joker as a character. What they and the film is interested in is the mental, moral, emotional, physical make-up of the man who became the Joker. As Arthur/Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing. Phillips has said he had a picture of the actor above his screen when writing the script and it’s a belief that has paid off. Phoenix inhabits Arthur: having lost weight for the role, he looks thin, frail, hungry. Shadows carve out his exposed bones. His physicality is precise — the way he moves, shuffles, runs, sits, smokes, shrinks. His usual intensity is on full display and it’s captivating, even overwhelming in moments. Comparing him to Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson feels like a nonsense: this is a Joker we’ve never seen — in many respects it isn’t the Joker, it’s Arthur.”
Owen Gleiberman (Variety)
“Many have asked, and with good reason: Do we need another Joker movie? Yet what we do need — badly — are comic-book films that have a verité gravitas, that unfold in the real world, so that there’s something more dramatic at stake than whether the film in question is going to rack up a billion-and-a-half dollars worldwide. Joker manages the nimble feat of telling the Joker’s origin story as if it were unprecedented. We feel a tingle when Bruce Wayne comes into the picture; he’s there less as a force than an omen. And we feel a deeply deranged thrill when Arthur, having come out the other side of his rage, emerges wearing smeary make-up, green hair, an orange vest and a rust-colored suit.”
David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)
“The clown prince of crime is alive and mentally unwell in Gotham City in Todd Phillips’ grippingly atmospheric supervillain origin story, Joker. While a never-better Joaquin Phoenix paints on the famed maniacal smile with his own blood at one memorable climactic moment of messianic rebirth, what’s most noteworthy about this gritty entry in the DC canon and the lead actor’s sensational performance is the pathos he brings to a pathetically disenfranchised character — just like countless others in a metropolis in which the social chasm separating the haves from the have-nots has become a pit of incendiary rage…. But this is Phoenix’s film, and he inhabits it with an insanity by turns pitiful and fearsome in an out-there performance that’s no laughing matter. Not to discredit the imaginative vision of the writer-director, his co-scripter and invaluable tech and design teams, but Phoenix is the prime force that makes Joker such a distinctively edgy entry in the Hollywood comics industrial complex.”
Jim Vejvoda (IGN)
“Featuring a riveting, fully realized, and Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Joker would work just as well as an engrossing character study without any of its DC Comics trappings; that it just so happens to be a brilliant Batman-universe movie is icing on the Batfan cake. You will likely leave Joker feeling like I did: unsettled and ready to debate the film for years to come.”
David Ehrlich (IndieWire)
“By the time ‘The End’ comes in its cute, old-timey font, Joker is neither a game-changer nor just “another day in Chuckletown.” It’s both. It’s good enough to be dangerous, and bad enough to demand better. It’s going to turn the world upside down and make us all hysterical in the process. For better or worse, it’s exactly the movie the Joker would want.”
Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair)
“There is undeniable style and propulsive charge to Joker, a film that looms and leers with nasty inexorability. It’s exhilarating in the most prurient of ways, a snuff film about the death of order, about the rot of a governing ethos. But from a step back, outside in the baking Venetian heat, it also may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes. Is Joker celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference, the way there wasn’t in Natural Born Killers or myriad other “America, man” movies about the freeing allure of depravity? The honest answer is, I don’t know. Not after one viewing, anyway. What I can tell you is that the reaction to the film from my packed audience of Italians and other international filmgoers sounded like roaring acclaim. Perhaps it’s a bit easier to accept and digest all this horror in a country where such men seem rarer—or I’m being an over-worried pill, and it’s just a good, startling movie.”