Joker: Joaquin Phoenix Oscar-Caliber, Stunning Achievement–World Premiere Venice Film Fest

Joker, Warner’s new comic book installment, which world premiered tonight at the Venice Film Fest, is a fantastic picture to behold.

The movie, splendidly directed by Todd Phillip, hits theaters in the U.S. on October 4, after playing at the Toronto Film Fest next week.

The gala of Joker at the Venice Film Fest drew an eight-minute standing ovation Saturday night for actor Joaquin Phoenix, director Todd Phillips and the gripping origin story they have crafted for Batman’s arch-villain.

Buzz in Venice had been growing around the Warner movie, ever since its unveiling last month as part of the lineup. The two press screenings were packed to capacity, with the second drawing loud applause and cheers when Phoenix’s name appeared in the closing credits.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a brilliant performance, one that is defined by extraordinary control over his physical movements and emotional expressiveness.  As of today, he is the frontrunner in the Best Actor Oscar category.

Joker is part of the DC Comics universe, but stands alone as an origin story and does not include any appearances by Batman or other caped crusaders.

Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, a sad sack and mentally troubled geek who transforms into an icon of violent nihilism as a killer-clown, is astonishing.

The actor said that previous versions of the role, such as Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in the 2008 The Dark Knight, did not influence him: “I didn’t refer to any past iteration of the character. It just felt like something that was our creation.”

A longer, more detailed review will be written later, but for now I would like to single out some of its qualities:

It’s impossible to watch the film without thinking of Martin Scorsese’s two seminal movies, Taxi Driver in 1973 and King of Comedy in 1983. And the fact that Robert De Niro (who had appeared in the two aforementioned films) plays in Joker the host of a variety show makes those associations even stronger (in film studies, we call it intertextuality).

Joker is a rare comic-book movie that is grounded in a recognizably real–and realistically looking– world, a dimension that lends the tale not just credibility and authenticity, but also deeper gravitas.

Todd Phillip and his co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) have created an origin story for Joker that feels fresh and unprecedented, even though the character has appeared in numerous previous versions.  No wonder actor Phoenix has said in an interview earlier today, “it felt like we created a character on our own.”

We get to know rather well Bruce Wayne as a young boy, how he became an orphan, and how he would serve as a symbol and omen–for the chapters that we have already seen over the past three decades. (The first Batman, directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton, was made exactly three decades ago, in 1989).

Unlike the scale and scope of the other Batman movies, Joker is essentially an intimate character study, a movie based on a comic strip that is effective as a family drama, as the relationship between Joker/Arthur Fleck and his sick, mentally disturbed, and delusional mother is at the core of this chapter.

Unfolding as an in-depth study of the birth of a villain, Joker is a sad and lonely character, to which the viewers can relate. In many ways, Arthur is an invisible guy, who both exists and does not exist in the world.  Slowly and gradually, we observe how Arthur the man disappears–and is transformed–into a monstrous criminal and the circumstances under which this transformation takes place. As a result, in some moments, especially those that are beyond his control, viewers might feel empathy and perhaps sympathy for Joker/Arthur.

Walking a fine line between a slow-burn psychological study and a mainstream studio blockbuster (after all this is a big-budegt Warner picture), Joker achieves its impact without any (O.K. a few) special effects.

Though representing dominant Hollywood cinema, the movie boasts a texture that is rich enough to offer both a conventional and transgressive elements.  We switch gears from grounded acts of humanity, as when the caring son Arthur visits his mother in the hospital, to outbursts of ferocious violence in various locales and spaces, both private and public.

A stunning achievement on many levels, Joker gives a good name to Hollywood as a commercial industry and an ideological story-teller that is relevant, provocative, and last but not least vastly entertaining.

I doubt if we will see many more movies of this high caliber in the rest of the year.