Has Heath Ledger’s Joker Finally Found A Match In Joaquin Phoenix? Critics Believe So 

Abhishek Srivastava - 55 weeks ago

After the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, many believed that it would be impossible to top Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker. It was a tour de force performance which had both surprised and astonished even Jack Nicholson (an earlier avatar of Joker was played Jack in Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989). The screening of Joker at the ongoing Venice Film Festival has made critics go gaga over Phoenix’s performance apart from Todd Phillip’s masterful direction. The verdict seems to be unanimous that Heath’s performance has finally found a match.

(Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker)


What's so compelling about the title role, both as written and in Phoenix's full-throttle, raw performance, is that we're encouraged to feel sympathy for the Joker even as he's clearly turning into a homicidal maniac.

An innocent part of him really does just want to follow his mother's guidance and make people smile. But the city pulls funding for its welfare programs, forcing him to go off his meds; a video clip of him laughing uncontrollably while doing a spot at a stand-up club gets mocked by his idol Murray on national TV; even his doting mother is perceived to have failed him when he filches her medical records and finds what's either a disturbing cover-up or fuel for paranoia.

The trajectory of innocence to evil is a tragic one. But watching Arthur exult as the crime wave crescendos is a chilling spectacle illustrating what all the ridicule, abuse and marginalization he's been subjected to have wrought.

(Joaquin Phoenix signing autograph on a Joker poster at Venice Film Festival)

INDIEWIRE (David Ehrlich)

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, and a hyper-familiar origin story so indebted to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy that Martin Scorsese probably deserves an executive producer credit. It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.

(Director Todd Phillips, Zazie Beetz and Joaquin Phoenix before the screening of Joker at Venice Film Festival)

FORBES (Mark Hughes)

Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance, fearless and stunning in its emotional depth and physicality. It's impossible to talk about this without referencing Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance from The Dark Knight, widely considered the definitive live-action portrayal of the Joker, so let's talk about it. The fact is, everyone is going to be stunned by what Phoenix accomplishes, because it's what many thought impossible — a portrayal that matches and potentially exceeds that of The Dark Knight's Clown Prince of Crime.

Some will consider me a heretic for saying such a thing, but it's simply the truth. Phoenix channels something otherworldly here, a man aware that a psychotic monster is violently clawing its way out of him and he struggles to contain it because he thinks that's what he has to do — until he decides he doesn't, because the monster within him is just him. And he likes it.

Twisting and contorting himself like a broken marionette — and sometimes like a crab or strange insect crawling from a cocoon — Phoenix lets the inner derangement manifest in every movement, every glance. There is malevolence seeping from his very pours. At first it is a bit harder to detect, because Phoenix so masterfully depicts the ways in which the Joker wrestles with himself to disguise his demented tendencies. But gradually, painfully, he allows us to see more and more of it. And as we witness it, we realize it's not a transformation but rather a revelation of what was always barely contained beneath the surface. And we recall earlier moments, and we realize the evil was there too, but it scared him the way it scares us, so he concealed it.

(Behind the scene still from Joker featuring Todd Phillips, Zazie Beetz and Joaquin Phoenix)

VARIETY (Owen Gleiberman)

Phoenix’s performance is astonishing. He appears to have lost weight for the role, so that his ribs and shoulder blades protrude, and the leanness burns his face down to its expressive essence: black eyebrows, sallow cheeks sunk in gloom, a mouth so rubbery it seems to be snarking at the very notion of expression, all set off by a greasy mop of hair. Phoenix is playing a geek with an unhinged mind, yet he’s so controlled that he’s mesmerizing. He stays true to the desperate logic of Arthur’s unhappiness.

You’re always aware of how much the mood and design of Joker owe to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. For a filmmaker gifted enough to stand on his own, Phillips is too beholden to his idols. Yet within that scheme, he creates a dazzlingly disturbed psycho morality play, one that speaks to the age of incels and mass shooters and no-hope politics, of the kind of hate that emerges from crushed dreams.

(Director Todd Phillips, Zazie Beetz and Joaquin Phoenix before the screening of Joker at Venice Film Festival)


What a gloriously daring and explosive film Joker is. It’s a tale that’s almost as twisted as the man at its centre, bulging with ideas and pitching towards anarchy.

Having brazenly plundered the films of Scorsese, Phillips fashions stolen ingredients into something new, so that what began as a gleeful cosplay session turns progressively more dangerous – and somehow more relevant, too. Gotham City is aflame and they’re rioting on the streets. And a rough beast is slouching towards the TV studio to be born.

(Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker)

IGN (Jim Vejvoda)

Unnervingly played by Joaquin Phoenix, the mentally ill Arthur Fleck is a struggling, overlooked schlepp trapped on the margins of society. Arthur is a man who has never had a good break or happy day in his life. The less said about how and why Arthur embraces the Joker persona and finds his liberation and joyful empowerment the better — this is a film meant to be experienced with an open mind and sans spoilers — but suffice it to say this Joker is the end result of a society far too comfortable with its casual cruelties and lack of empathy. We create the monsters we deserve.

Joker is an indictment of a society’s collective disregard for the well-being of its citizens rather than necessarily critiquing any one type of individual or class. As much as you sympathize with their plight, Gotham’s downtrodden can be as callous and vicious as the rich and powerful. Arthur is at one point or another injured emotionally or physically by individuals at every level, as well as by the institutions they populate. If Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle called himself “God’s lonely man” then Arthur Fleck is certainly Gotham’s lonely man. Arthur is ultimately seeking human connection, something he tragically won’t find until he puts on a happy face and violently exposes the city’s own hypocrisies and inhumanity.


Joaquin Phoenix / Todd Phillips / Martin Scorsese / Joker / Heath Ledger / Jack Nicholson / Venice Film Festival / IGN / The Guardian / Hollywood Reporter / Variety / Forbes

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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