A short premise: as this movie needs to be enjoyed without knowing the details of its plot, we will just say what is officially out. This “origins” story of Gotham City’s arch-villain and Batman nemesis creates something we have never seen before, telling the story of broken comedian Arthur Fleck and his life in a Gotham City devastated by poverty and violence where billionaire Thomas Wayne prepares his electoral campaign to become mayor.
This is all you need to know. Then, “put on a happy face” and go to the cinema. Be prepared to watch a movie for which the hype and the Oscar buzz are totally justified. But for those who had a frown in seeing a cine-comic swipe the Golden Lion at the usually-arty Venice Film Festival, well… this is not a cine-comic. The philological approach by Director Todd Phillips to the 70s and early 80s aesthetic starts from the opening where the Warner Bros logo is the grainy one of their masterpieces of the time. What follows is a meditation on violence and frustration, full of nihilism but never filled with the proto-fascist approach of the “Death Wish” genre launched at the time.
You feel Scorsese, especially in the presence of Robert De Niro as cheeky TV-Host Murray Franklin, and the quotes from “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” are evident. But there is also, imho, space for the philosophical reflections of Russian literature, from the pitiful humiliated men of Gogol’s “The Coat” to the darker investigations on human being led by Dostoevskij.
In all this, Joaquin Phoenix stands. His performance is a work of art, full of details which will be analyzed by schools of cinema in the years to come. The laughter, THAT laughter, penetrates your nerves and leaves you uncomfortable. His face, his moves, his deformed and tortured body are all visible signs of suffering and repression before an explosion comes. It is not a Uber-Mensch villain like the equally perfect portrait by Heath Ledger, it is something more subtle and unpleasant in which, tragically, everyone can mirror himself.
“Joker” is a movie which seals and mirrors this decade of violence, lies, injustice and racism. It is a lesson for us to learn.