Joker (15)****

Dir: Todd Phillips

With: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro

Runtime: 122 minutes

“IS it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”asks clown impersonator Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) at the start of this origins tale about the comic book villain. If ever there was a film that was desperate for cult status, for its lines to feature on T-shirts and its anti-hero to become this year’s hottest Halloween dress up character, it is Todd Phillips' drama.

In America, Joker has reignited the old debate about whether movies, having great power, should also exercise responsibility when it comes to violence, and it will doubtless do the same here.

Fleck, a bundle of raw nerve endings, lives in Gotham City in the early 1980s. The screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) puts his inappropriate and maniacal laughter – more of a sob than a guffaw – down to a “condition”, and his behaviour in general to mental illness and a disturbed past. Living with his sick mother in a rubbish-strewn city going to the dogs/super rats, the fuse is about to be lit on the stick of dynamite that is Arthur, and everyone should stand well back.

If playing the character as Gotham City’s answer to Travis Bickle is not enough Robert De Niro worship for you, the King of Comedy star himself turns up as a late night talk show host who makes Arthur famous by laughing at, rather than with, his attempts to be a comedian.

It is easy to see why Joker has been controversial. Everything about it is over the top and provocative, from the picture’s portrait of a divide, warring America where the rich are despised, to Phoenix’s bursting out of the screen performance. Even the choice of music (Gary Glitter, seriously?) seems designed to shock. It is sickeningly violent, and exploitative, too, inviting the audience to see Arthur as a victim, worthy of our sympathy, and yes, Phoenix makes him cool.

All one can say in mitigation is that Phillips’ previous work includes The Hangover and Starsky and Hutch. In short, in terms of movies as political comment we are not talking Kubrick here. For all the film’s faults and manipulations, I was not bored for a second, and that is due to Phoenix, who gives his all as only he can. ALISON ROWAT