OPENING TODAY, Joker is already one of the most-talked about films of the year. Here's a selection of verdicts from members of the extended TimeOut family who watched Monday's New Zealand premiere screening.
Toby Woollaston, TimeOut film reviewer
What a luxury to have Joaquin Phoenix to hang your film on. Especially when that film is about one of the most iconic (and dare I say it, celebrated) fictional villains in history. His turn as the Clown Prince of Crime will likely draw comparisons to those who have gone before (Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson et al). But it needn't. This film is a different beast and Phoenix occupies a different period in the Joker's story.
Set within the bowels of Gotham City (stylised as an all-but-in-name early-80s New York), Joker introduces Arthur Fleck, a heavily medicated clown-for-hire with a neurological disorder that causes compulsive laughing. Living with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he spends evenings watching Live! with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on TV, Fleck cuts a desperately lonely figure. Bullied, alienated, and fast becoming bitter towards the people around him, he succumbs to his darker leanings.
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This introspective character study belies its comic book origins. Dark, gritty and full of rage, Fleck's psychological descent is undeniably eye-opening. But the misunderstood anti-hero schtick has a familiar ring, with Fleck's character clearly cribbing from roles such as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle (played, of course, by De Niro). Even Phoenix's turn as sociopathic loner Joe in last year's You Were Never Really Here could be considered a practice run.
The pathos-filled characterisation of Fleck by director/co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) is considerably unsettling — a dark vision that walks a tightrope between empathy towards Fleck's brokenness and revulsion at the Joker's psychopathic tendencies.
It's a wobbly moral compass that occasionally leaves you unsure who to root for. Despite this, Joker still elevates itself from the pack, thanks in main to Phoenix's remarkably embodied performance.
David Skipwith, TimeOut writer
Joker will divide movie-goers but I was firmly in the camp that was thrilled rather than shocked by what they had just seen. This twist on Joker's back story — and connection to Bruce Wayne — rejuvenates and adds depth to a character that seemed exhausted or untouchable in the wake of Heath Ledger's iconic performance.
Filthy, sleazy Gotham City is presented as a character in its own right, both claustrophobic and sprawling in scale. I couldn't help but empathise with the downtrodden Arthur Fleck, despite his extreme and disturbing reactions to his cruel environment and circumstances.
There are some (maniacal) laugh-out-loud moments but the near constant tension makes the bursts of violence all the more brutal and unsettling without being gratuitous.
Chris Reed, acting head of entertainment
An indie-style study of mental health disguised as a comic book blockbuster, Joker is a triumph, albeit a bleak, disturbing and sobering one.
Notwithstanding some cheeky references for Batfans, it's more about how society treats the marginalised than anything else.
Some will find its moral ambivalence problematic. I believe art should challenge and prompt debate. Joker succeeded even before its release.
Sinead Corcoran, deputy lifestyle editor
I may have spent a good chunk of the film gripping my seat, aghast but I still left wanting more.
Despite him being an emaciated murdering loon, I still found myself rooting for Joker as a sort of charismatic and charming anti-hero, which may say something about my unfortunate taste in men.
Is he an absolutely cooked, psychopathic villain? Yup. But is he also a very sexy dancer?
Tom Dillane, broadcasting reporter
This was brutally invigorating, a rebellious inversion of everything wrong with modern Hollywood, not least the superhero franchise. Joker was an experience.
Blood-soaked, makeup smeared Travis Bickle 2.0 figuratively shooting himself in the head. But with a wider smile.