Since the announcement last year that the brilliant, idiosyncratic Joaquin Phoenix would be taking on the challenge of reimagining the role iconically played by Heath Ledger, fans' anticipation for the new, stand-alone "Joker" film has been inevitably building. Since the release of the first haunting trailer in April, the expectations for the film have attained a level that will be hard to fulfill. But according to early reviews of the film, which releases in the States on October 4, fans won't be disappointed by the "dazzlingly disturbing" new take on the decades-old villain.
In an interview last summer, soon after the studio first announced that he was taking on the famous role, Phoenix told Collider that director Todd Phillips' vision for the film was to defy not only the comic book genre, but any easy filmic categorization. "It feels unique, it is its own world in some ways, and maybe, mostly, it scares the f***ing sh** out of me or something. It might as well be the thing that scares you the most," he said. "I wouldn't quite classify this as like any genre. I wouldn't say it's a superhero movie, or a studio movie ... It feels unique ... "
As he's famous for doing, Phoenix, like Ledger, threw himself into the role, losing over 50 pounds in the process. "It turns out that affects your psychology. You start to go mad," Phoenix told The Hollywood Reporter at the Venice Film Festival, where the film debuted last week.
Phillips' choice to defy genres and Phoenix's commitment to "inhabiting" the role appear to have paid off. With 46 reviews in, Rotten Tomatoes gives "Joker" an 85% on the Tomatometer and offers an intriguing summary of the critical responses thus far: "Joker gives its infamous central character a chillingly plausible origin story that serves as a brilliant showcase for its star — and a dark evolution for comics-inspired cinema."
Variety's Owen Glieberman describes the film as "the rare comic-book movie that expresses what's happening in the real world." Here's an excerpt of his response:
[I]n "Joker," Todd Phillips’ hypnotically perverse, ghoulishly grippingly urban-nightmare comic fantasia, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the mentally ill loser-freak who will, down the line, become Batman’s nemesis, stands before us not as a grand villain but as a pathetic specimen of raw human damage. Even as we’re drinking in his screw-loose antics with shock and dismay, there’s no denying that we feel something for him — a twinge of sympathy, or at least understanding.
The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney was also mesmerized by Phoenix's "sensational" performance and likewise found the film to be rooted in reality in a way that most superhero films fail to be:
...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. This is very much tethered to the superhero universe and intersects in ways both familiar and not with canonical Batman lore. But Joker could also be a film for audiences who don't much care about the usual Hollywood comic-strip assembly line.
The Los Angeles Times' Justin Chang also stressed the film's gritty realism, describing it as providing a "dark, brooding and psychologically plausible origin story, a vision of cartoon sociopathy made flesh."
Time Out's Philip De Semlyen praised the film as "a truly nightmarish vision of late-era capitalism – arguably the best social horror film since 'Get Out'":
It's the laugh that gets you first: Joaquin Phoenix’s half cackle, half rasp has all the soothing aural balm of a vulture in a blender. It’ll be ratting around in your ears long after the old-school ‘The End’ card flashes up on this unrelenting, grimly funny and brilliantly visceral reinvention of the DC supervillain. This is a truly nightmarish vision of late-era capitalism – arguably the best social horror film since ‘Get Out’ – and Phoenix is magnetic in it. He runs Heath Ledger cigarette paper-close as the finest screen Joker.
While most of the critics have given the film high marks, some weren't as impressed, including TheWrap's Alonso Duralde, who faulted the film for relying too much on Phoenix's performance:
If you strip the Joker and his nearly 80-year history as a cultural icon out of this film, as well as all the 1970s movie homages, there's not a whole lot left except for Phoenix's performance, and it's the kind of turn that's destined to be divisive.
IndieWire's David Ehrlich thought the film was indeed a game-changer for comic book films, but ultimately out of control:
It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by 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.
RogerEbert's Glenn Kenny was even less kind, trashing the film's attempt at social commentary as "pernicious garbage."
Though clearly not everyone bought into the vision of Phillips and Phoenix, in the end, a vast majority of the nearly four dozen critics who have reviewed it so far gave their thumbs up, often emphatically so.
Below is the latest trailer for the film: