A film telling the story of how Batman's arch-enemy came into being suggests a barrage of computer-generated effects propelled by an enormous budget. That might spell triumph at the box-office, but it's not usually the sort of film that wins awards.

Happily, Joker is not that sort of film. There's not a special effect in sight. The budget wasn't huge. Joaquin Phoenix, extraordinary in the title role, does not offer the standard comic-book caricature of villainy.

And it might well win the main prize at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered on Saturday evening, for the simple reason that it's a stunning movie. I mean that almost in a literal sense. I emerged from the cinema as if pole-axed, and I wasn't alone.

Joker is said to be the darkest take on the comic book character yet. Photo / Supplied
Joker is said to be the darkest take on the comic book character yet. Photo / Supplied

Joker is a thunderously powerful character study of a man with a mental illness, and a ferocious indictment of a society that doesn't treat the mentally ill with the same compassion it shows to, say, cancer sufferers.


That might make it sound worryingly like a conscience-driven cinematic lecture, but it's not Ken Loach behind the camera, it's Todd Phillips, who directed the Hangover films.

Joker is above all an exercise in entertainment. Indeed, I have rarely been so grippingly entertained.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, who lives with his fragile mother (Frances Conroy) in a ramshackle apartment building in Gotham City. It is 1981. Gotham, of course, is New York City, blighted by crime, uncollected garbage and industrial unrest, in gossamer-thin disguise.

A rich industrialist called Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is campaigning to become mayor to get Gotham back on its feet. Those of you who recall the Batman origin story should note that he has a young son called Bruce.

Arthur, meanwhile, is just about holding down a job as a professional clown, available for cheap promotional stunts, children's hospital visits, that sort of thing.He is disturbed, a loner with a Tourette's-style condition that compels him to laugh for no reason.

He makes weekly visits to a social worker, who organises his medication, but Gotham's social services are being cut to the bone. Soon he will have nowhere to turn. "The worst thing about having a mental illness," he writes in his journal, "is that people expect you to behave as if you don't".

Joker will be released next month. Photo / Supplied
Joker will be released next month. Photo / Supplied

Arthur dreams of being a stand-up comedian. His hero is a TV talk-show host, Murray Franklin, splendidly played by Robert De Niro in a conspicuous nod to Martin Scorsese's 1982 classic The King Of Comedy. In that film, De Niro himself played the deranged stand-up comic, who was obsessed with a TV host played by Jerry Lewis.

So Phillips, and his co-writer Scott Silver, don't mind acknowledging their influences. Yet Joker is dazzlingly original in the background it weaves for one of comic-book fiction's greatest baddies, and in the way it does so.


Boldly, it even dares to let us sympathise with Arthur. He is creepy, yes, but victimised and misunderstood. Oddly enough, he is a much more nuanced character than other killers Phoenix has played so brilliantly, such as Commodus in Gladiator (2000). Even when he does turn murderous, he has the audience's empathy.

Gotham is teetering on the brink of civil strife and it turns out to be Arthur, of all insignificant citizens, who nudges it over the edge. The man wanted for murder had a painted clown face, and suddenly clown masks are everywhere, a symbol of proletarian anger against Wayne and other masters of the universe.

As violence erupts in the streets, Arthur is assailed by a personal crisis.

Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. Photo / Supplied
Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Joker. Photo / Supplied

He learns startling details about the circumstances of his birth. Perhaps even more unexpectedly, he is invited to be a guest on The Murray Franklin Show, following the broadcast of a video of him dying, in comedic terms, in his stand-up debut. It is the Eighties, so we can't say that his humiliation goes viral, but Phillips is clearly taking a pop at modern social media.

Like The King Of Comedy, Joker is a satire; an unforgettably dark and brutal one. I hope it wins awards, starting with the prestigious Golden Lion this week in Venice, but whether it does or not, everyone involved should be hugely proud of their creation.

That goes especially for Phillips and Phoenix, but also for executive producer Bradley Cooper. The last film his production company made was A Star Is Born (2018). This one, the first in a new franchise called DC Black, an offshoot from the DC Extended Universe series, could be sub-titled A Supervillain Is Born. And how.

• Joker is realeased in New Zealand on October 3