Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a marginalised schlub suffering from an array of mental illnesses, living alone with his disillusioned, sickly mother (Frances Conroy) in a sad and crumbling apartment. “My whole life, I never knew if I really existed”, Arthur extolls with a tragic smirk as the last bits of good are snatched out of his life by a system that deifies the Haves as it treads bodily on the Have Nots.

Unravelling along with Arthur, Gotham City in 1981 is a powder keg due to a number of civil failures. People are on edge and one bad day away from a bloody catastrophe. Arthur has had nothing but bad days his entire life.

Eking out a living as a clown for hire, Arthur wants to be a standup comedian. The problem, as his mother keeps reminding him, is that he’s not funny. He can barely talk to people and nobody wants to talk to him. Not in any meaningful sense anyway. So he dreams. Dreams of one day making it big enough to appear on his favourite talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Dreams of having a relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), the single mother living down the hall from him. Dreams of just not having bad thoughts anymore. Arthur’s dreams turn to cackling nightmares though when he’s accosted by three drunk yuppies on the subway, and he finally cracks under the impact of both their blows and his miserable existence. His actions start a downward spiral, slick with blood, that threatens to drag the entire Gotham City down with him.

Modern DC Comics movies have often been accused of being too grim and dark, but theirs is the faux gloom of melancholic teens in cracked black makeup writing embarrassing poetry when in comparison to Joker. Director Todd Phillips’ full-blown revisionist origin story for the classic eponymous Batman villain is a truly stygian descent into one man’s mental hellscape.

There have been other accusations levelled at this film though: Journalists accusing Phillips of using his film to glamourize mass killers and incel fringe culture. Does Joker actually do this? Yes… no… maybe. I can’t answer that question definitively for you, because this is a movie that doesn’t traffic in definitive answers. With maniacal glee, it invites introspection and discussion with every frame; it’s the type of movie where two viewers can have completely discordant experiences of it and both still be correct.

Joker is a conflagration of themes and meta-commentary as subtle as a city on fire. It’s inflammatory and revulsive and self-indulgent and pretentious and meticulous and achingly beautiful. In short: It’s art.

The whole affair is anchored by a hellishly physical performance from Phoenix who inhabits virtually every frame of Joker’s two-hour running time. His Arthur Fleck starts out a twisted, sinewy creature, his every movement a cadaverous perversion. As Arthur slowly morphs into a smoothly confident madman approximation of the DC Comics villain we know though – complete with stringy green hair, garishly coloured suit and smiling clown face paint as he dances through scenes – his question mark spine straightens, his twitchy limbs settle. It’s a wholly transformative performance that is deserving of mountains of praise.

But while Phoenix is sure to be destined for more metalware to place on his mantle and thus will hog the headlines, credit also has to be given to Phillips. The true insanity here is that this is the same filmmaker who gave us the Hangover trilogy. Joker is a far cry from that increasingly creatively bankrupt franchise, with Phillips designing and shooting every scene with virtuoso craftsmanship. This film is simply striking to behold both visually and aurally, with each music note and frame meticulously curated to unnerve. And when things turn gruesomely violent, the director doesn’t shy away from the shocking horror of it all. Arthur’s actions are truly horrific and Phillips never lets you forget it, but he never overtly asks you to sympathize nor crucify Arthur either. He just wants you to try and understand Arthur, or at least attempt to. And even if you disagree with that approach – even if you vehemently hate this entire affair – you have to appreciate the skill with which he puts it all together.

Admittedly, Phillips borrows heavily from Martin Scorsese, owing huge debts to the filmmaking legend’s classic – specifically, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – but he still turns in a film that is decidedly modern and real despite being set in a fictional comic book city in the 1980s. It touches on current affairs like the 1%, the disregard and misunderstanding of mental health issues, consent, gun violence, the media’s exploitation of people for quick ratings, and so much more. There are times you can even feel Phillips smugly winking back at the audience as he appears to metaphorically skewer those critical of his previous work.

And somehow, through all of that, Joker still tries to not forget its comic book roots by throwing in links to the Batman mythology. It’s telling though that this latter aspect offers without a doubt the production’s weakest moments because this is a comic book movie unlike any other. Fittingly, the last entry of the genre that comes even remotely close to Joker’s thematic and metaphorical depth is The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s superhero magnum opus that gave us arguably the most iconic rendition of the Joker yet. Does Phoenix’s effort here top that of the late Heath Ledger? Please see above regarding definitive answers.

But please also see this movie. Much has been made about voices on the internet loudly declaring Joker a dangerous call to arms and thus encouraging audiences to not watch it. But it’s precisely because it’s potentially dangerous that we need to see it. That’s how art works.

Beneath all the acrylic paints and sculptors’ clay, art is a gleaming mirror we hold up to ourselves so that we can confront our flaws. Joker is definitely not perfect (which is ironically a perfect thematic fit) and there are many that will see its politics as incitement instead of a cautionary tale (and vice versa). But with it all but impossible to declare which of those viewpoints are correct, it will get us talking and that’s never a bad thing.

Last Updated: October 7, 2019

Boasting a spine-popping awards-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix and revelatory filmmaking from Todd Phillips, Joker is a piece of art. And thus, because it's so subjective in its layering of themes and metaphors, it's art that will not be to everybody's liking. Irrespective of whether you like it or not, you can't deny how masterfully crafted it is.
59/ 100


  1. Cannot wait! Few hours away.

    Also, what’s up with the Meta and RT scores though?


    • Mistake Not...

      October 4, 2019 at 10:44

      Haven’t been a fan of review aggregate sites for a while now. Better to just find a few reviewers you generally agree with, or who make well articulated arguments for/against the thing.


    • Kervyn Cloete

      October 4, 2019 at 10:53

      I legit didn’t want to put a score on this review. It’s something I generally actually despise, and felt even stronger than normal about it here just because of how subjective this movie is.


    • Admiral Chief

      October 4, 2019 at 10:15

      SJWs had a butthurt


      • Geoffrey Tim

        October 4, 2019 at 10:25

        eh, movie reviews are always on a completely different score grade. It’s not usual for any movie to get above 70 on meta. And as Kervyn said in this review, two people watching this movie will come away with completely polar opinions.


        • Admiral Chief

          October 4, 2019 at 10:34

          It is also not unusual to be loved by anyone


        • Son of Banana Jim

          October 4, 2019 at 12:28

          Normally I would agree with you, but the criticism this movie received before it was released (and even now through heavily politicised “reviews” and inane opinion pieces) went beyond merely a difference of opinion.

          It’s almost like some of the reviewers and media people were salivating at the thought of some nutjob shooting people in a cinema, purely to validate their own sick views and to make a political point.

          I was actually glad when the director and WB said “No! No more… go play somewhere else, you petulant children”.

          I’m definitely going to see this movie, and I’ve been keen to the minute I heard about.


          • Dresden

            October 7, 2019 at 17:43

            She calls him “the patron saint of incels” in that review. ?

            How can you take that seriously?

        • HvR

          October 4, 2019 at 10:53

          Difference in taste and opinion I understand;certain things however are completely objective. The subjective part should make the difference between say 6 or 7 out 10 vs 9.

          I’ve now scanned through a few of the lowest reviews. They claim a few technical things things then have a political ramble for the 80% of the review.

          Basically review bombing by movie critics; ironically typically the same outlets that was so outspoken about fanboy review bombing earlier this year.


  2. Admiral Chief

    October 4, 2019 at 10:15

    Maar is dit kuns?


  3. LegionZA

    October 4, 2019 at 10:15

    Looking forward to watching this. Watching this to watch a good movie, not type of movie, just a good movie and looking to be entertained


  4. Wallman

    October 4, 2019 at 10:34

    Great stuff, thanks for a great review Kervyn. I imagine it must have been art in itself to describe this film and you did it without compromise


  5. Mistake Not...

    October 4, 2019 at 10:34

    This is kind of what I wanted from DC movies since BvS (and I enjoyed BvS). Sort of stand-alone movies, smaller budgets, and giving the director free rein. Let them make the movie they want to make. It might not always work out, but at least it wouldn’t have that homogeneity that cinematic universe movies often have. A lengthy way of saying I’m looking forward to this.


  6. Son of Banana Jim

    October 4, 2019 at 12:35

    I might have to slip away from parental duties and go watch it this weekend.


  7. RinceThis

    October 4, 2019 at 14:19

    Awesome review. Seeing it this weekend.


  8. Magoo マグ

    October 4, 2019 at 11:21

    Great review man. Like I said in a comment last week, this kind of art is a reflection more than it is a mere creation.

    Also, as usual, thanks for (hopefully) teaching me a LOT of new words/phrases today:

    powder keg
    magnum opus

    Any more and I may have resorted to defenestration.


    • Kervyn Cloete

      October 4, 2019 at 11:29

      Ha ha ha. It’s my pleasure.


    • miaau

      October 4, 2019 at 13:04

      defenestration: not yourself, somebody else…….


      • Magoo マグ

        October 4, 2019 at 13:31

        Yes, Kervyn…


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