'Joker' Review: Joaquin Phoenix Is Phenomenal In This Nihilistic Nightmare [TIFF 2019]

"He's a lonely forgotten man desperate to prove that he's alive." That's the tagline of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but it might as well serve as a rallying cry for Todd Phillips's Joker, a violent, nihilistic horror film masquerading as both a character drama and a comic book movie. Realizing that it's next to impossible to get a studio-backed character piece greenlit, Phillips has decided to use the Joker as a gateway drug, giving him a chance to more or less remake Taxi Driver for a whole new generation of moviegoers – the ones who've grown up on a steady diet of superhero movies. Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is that lonely forgotten man – a mentally unstable loser just aching for acceptance. He says he wants to be a standup comedian, but what he really wants is attention. And he's willing to kill to get it.

Joker's script, courtesy of Phillips and Scott Silver, is often painfully simplistic – the type of script where characters literally spell-out their motivations in blunt, unsubtle ways. Yet everything else on display here transcends that material, resulting in a curious experience – a film that lacks a good story, but boasts an overall masterful display of craft. Phillips's direction is exact and precise, overloading the film with homages to '70s character dramas and wide shots that encompass the dirty, filthy world Arthur lives in. That direction is aided by Lawrence Sher's stunning cinematography – full of long, dark nights and burning artificial lights – as if existing in a world where the sun no longer rises. All of this is accentuated by Hildur Guðnadóttir's ominous, haunting score, which is full of long, drawn-out notes and chilling soundscapes.

It's the 1980s, and Gotham City is a living hell. A garbage strike has resulted in thousands of tons of trash piled up in the streets – which in turn has given way to a new breed of giant super rats. The city is a powder keg ready to explode, as the rich get richer and the poor struggle to survive. Living among the downtrodden is Phoenix's Arthur Fleck, a wannabe stand-up comic who makes his living as a party clown. He appears to love his clowning job as he prances and dances his way from one event to the next. But the cold, harsh world of Gotham City has no need for such mirth, and Arthur finds himself shunned and abused at every turn.

His finds solace in both his belief that he'll one day be a famous stand-up comic, and his love of The Murray Franklin Show, a Tonight Show-esque late-night comedy show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, playing a kind of reverse version of the character he played in Scorsese's The King of Comedy). But Arthur's "jokes" aren't very good. In fact, they're non-existent. He's also clearly mentally ill – a social worker has him on seven different prescriptions, but none of them seem to be working.

The only real human contact Arthur has is with his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who insists on writing a constant barrage of letters to her former employer, the wealthy Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). The Trumpian Wayne is planning to run for mayor, promising to clean-up Gotham in the process. Penny believes that Wayne will use his wealth to help her and Arthur, but Arthur has his doubts.

Thomas Wayne can't help Arthur. In fact, no one can. And as the character finds himself more and more abused, he finally decides to lash-out, murdering three cruel stockbrokers on the subway. Arthur's act spurns a full-blown "eat the rich" movement in Gotham, with citizens donning clown masks and staging violent protests. Arthur has created an entire movement – but he doesn't seem to care about that at all. As he says himself, he's not political – and he doesn't believe in anything. Except himself.

A smarter script would take these ideas and turn them into something with deeper meaning. Phillips is presenting a wealth of possibilities here, dealing with social issues and class struggles. But like Arthur, Phillips doesn't seem to care about that. It's all just background noise – an excuse to turn Arthur into a full-blown psychopath; a chain-smoking clown prone to dancing his way through life. There's a great film lurking within the frames of Joker – but sadly, we'll just have to settle for a good one.

What elevates all of this is Phoenix, who is haunting, haunted and downright scary. Gaunt to the point of emaciation, the actor brings a great physicality to the performance, and Phillips often accentuates the character's ghastly appearance by having Phoenix stretch and twist about with his shirt off, his ribs protruding from beneath his skin, his shoulder blades jutting like pieces of broken glass. Manic, creepy, and imposing, Phoenix manages to make his Joker empathetic, but never sympathetic. We feel for Arthur – but we can never really like him. He's too detestable; too nasty. He suffers from a medical condition that causes him to utter wild peels of painful laughter, and he's not above stalking his attractive neighbor, played by Zazie Beetz in a tragically underwritten role. And as Arthur becomes more and more unhinged and violent, any semblance of empathy for the character flat-out vanishes. He's become what he was always meant to be: a supervillain. As Joker draws to its climax, Arthur's violent tendencies explode, resulting in several ghastly, graphic moments that would be right at home in a slasher movie.

The cinema landscape is choked with comic book movies – a artistic shift that has resulted in an urge for more adult-driven cinema. Joker wants to be the answer to those cinephile prayers – a film that is the best of both worlds: a comic book property that's also a dark, adult drama. But the film is so relentlessly bleak, and so intellectually slight, that the end result seems like a "be careful what you wish for" warning. Like Arthur Fleck, Joker doesn't believe in anything. That's both fascinating, and terrifying. This is the truly subversive comic book movie we've been waiting for. Now that it's here, we might start to regret the monster we've conjured up.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10