Director Todd Phillips reshapes Batman lore with a disturbing and shockingly violent descent into madness. Joker is a dark masterpiece; a bleak journey with a spellbinding lead performance. It feels unreal to write that Joaquin Phoenix may have surpassed Heath Ledger as the definitive interpretation of Joker. Fandom will be waxing poetic comparing the two. The film will certainly ignite a firestorm of controversy. Mental illness, gun control, society’s apathetic decay, the chasm between rich and poor; Joker takes a fatalistic dive into heady issues. There has never been a comic book adaptation remotely this unsettling. Some will be appalled. Joker takes the genre in entirely uncharted territory.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is in crisis. A heavily medicated, mentally ill man, he lives in poverty with his similarly afflicted mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). He earns a meager living performing as a clown. Despite the ridicule, Arthur enjoys his job. He likes to entertain and see people smile. Arthur’s dream is to be a stand-up comedian. His primary barrier is an uncontrollable disorder. Arthur erupts into cackling laughter when stressed or confronted. He’s considered a freak. He has no friends. Even a city mandated social worker ignores his pleas.
Gotham City stinks from a garbage strike. Billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) plans to run for mayor and clean up the fetid streets. Arthur’s mother is infatuated with him. Arthur funnels his idolatry towards late night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). A particularly harrowing day on the job changes everything for Arthur. He decides to fight back against his cruel oppressors. Arthur gains new confidence. Maybe he’ll have a conversation with a pretty neighbor (Zazzie Beetz), or light a fire under the simmering anger bursting through the seams of a town on the edge.
Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs) understands the importance of his setting. Gotham is torn from Martin Scorsese’s gritty depictions of seventies New York City. Poverty, drugs, crime, despair, and filth pervade. Arthur is a desperate soul in a place that crushes the needy. His cries for help go unnoticed where no one cares. Arthur is not inherently savage. His transformation into the Joker is a result of the environment. Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver see no other destiny. It’s a viewpoint that will garner criticism. Not everyone who slips through the cracks becomes a homicidal maniac. But untreated mental illness leads to tragedy daily; especially when firearms are involved. Phillips and Silver have merit to their message.
Joaquin Phoenix will be near impossible to beat come award season. He is absolutely riveting from the opening to last frame of Joker. His skeletal body, oily hair, and gaunt face an essential accomplice to inhabiting Arthur Fleck’s being. Phoenix’s spasmodic laughter, twitching back and forth through a sea of tears, conjures sympathy and ghastly fascination. It is an intense, physical performance that becomes even more astounding when Joker emerges. Everything broken inside Arthur’s body and mind blooms into a murderous extrovert. Joaquin Phoenix, who’s been an amazing actor in numerous roles since childhood, reaches a career pinnacle here.
Joker is strictly for mature audiences. Any kid watching would be traumatized. Joker is not a superhero, special effects wizardry popcorn film. Many comic fans will be turned off by the ugliness and bloody savagery. Warner Bros. and DC took a huge risk making Joker. The studio and Todd Phillips have already faced a considerable backlash. That may turn into a tidal wave after release, especially if some deranged individual tries to emulate the character. Art cannot be held hostage to public sentiment or the actions of a few. Joker is a different take on an eighty-year-old character. It is visionary, a must see. The praise for Joaquin Phoenix is not hyperbolic. He legitimately challenges Heath Ledger for the mantle of best Joker.
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