The trailers for Joker set a very high bar—they’re gorgeous and operatic, and filled with suggestions that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance threatens to unseat Heath Ledger’s 11-year-long run as the best Joker ever. And after its debut at The Venice Film Festival Saturday, where it received an eight-minute long standing ovation, early reviews are finally in: as of Sunday, the movie has an 88 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film tells the story of initially mild-mannered clown Arthur Fleck’s descent into violence and villainy on the crime- and poverty-ridden streets of 1981 Gotham. Critics noted the movie’s debt to gritty ‘70s cinema, including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. And much of the praise has focused on Phoenix’s performance. “This is Phoenix’s film,” declared The Hollywood Reporter, “and he inhabits it with an insanity by turns pitiful and fearsome in an out-there performance that’s no laughing matter.”
Phoenix “delivers the kind of meticulously detailed psychotic breakdown that he does better than just about any American actor now working,” wrote The LA Times.
“If you like an actor who disappears into a role and effects what appears to be organic human behavior on the screen, this is not your jam,” reads a more critical review for The Wrap. “Phoenix puts the ‘perform’ in ‘performance” he’s never not twitching or laughing…or hyperventilating or dancing. Some will love it and some will look askance, but he’s definitely doing the kind of work that fits the tone of the film.”
On Saturday, director Todd Phillip’s insistance to reporters that Joker is “not a political film” reportedly elicited laughter from some members of the press. And many critics examined the film’s political themes in their reviews. “For so many tragic reasons, the American imagination has of late been preoccupied with the motivations of disaffected white men who’ve turned violent,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson in his analysis. In Joker, “we watch the terrible burgeoning of just such a man and are, in some grim way, asked to sympathize with him.”
“Todd Phillips’ Joker is unquestionably the boldest reinvention of ‘superhero’ cinema since The Dark Knight; a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century. It’s also a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels,” wrote Indiewire critic David Ehrlich. He declared Joker “a visionary, twisted, paradigm-shifting tour de force and a bar-lowering mess of moral incoherence. It’s nothing less (and nothing more) than an agent of unbridled chaos.”