A powerful blend of Christopher Nolan's dark superhero approach and a gritty, Scorsese 70's mean streets plunge into insanity, JOKER is a brilliant, depressing take on a classic villain.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic as Arthur Fleck. Deeply disturbed, he's living a life of squalor in a tiny, filthy flat with his mother Jenny (Francis Conroy of "Six Feet Under"). Their relationship is disturbing in a myriad of ways and wrapped in decades of despair and pain.
Arthur's day job is a clown, spinning Going Out Of Business signs outside crappy stores or terrifying children's birthdays. At night, he climbs in bed with Mom to watch Gotham City's #1 talk show host, Murray Franklin, well played by Robert DeNiro.
Nolan's Gotham may be the shining Manhattan of today, but Joker's Gotham is New York City in the early 80's, piled with garbage, strewn with humans and danger around every corner.
As Arthur becomes more defeated, he begins to slip into violence, lashing out in random acts that inspire all the desperate and angry citizens of Gotham to push back.
Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen from "The Dark Knight Rises") publicly denounces this tide of violence and the attitude behind it.
Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is a beautiful young single woman that lives down the hallway from the Flecks. Her relationship with Arthur blossoms as his confidence grows.
The challenging and smart take on the material is that Arthur is the classic unreliable narrator of our story. What's real? What's fantasy? There are no defined lines or clear answers and the film's all the better for it.
With very strong echoes of "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy", the movie feels like a Martin Scorsese take on a superhero legend, which is pretty funny given his slam on Marvel movies last week, saying they weren't "cinema".
Well, JOKER is.
Phoenix has been brilliant on screen before, including his take on Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line", but this is his moment. I'd be shocked if he didn't win Best Actor next year. His Arthur Fleck/Joker is a man teetering on madness. Phoenix is able to show you moments where you feel like he's about to explode with all the built up sadness and anger. When he does, its hypnotic.
Director Todd Phillips brings his camera in so close to Phoenix at the right moments that you feel like you can see inside his head. It's not a place you want to visit.
Phillips has served up some very successful comedies in the past like "The Hangover" films and "Old School", but he proves he can play the polar opposite of laughter with this dramatic turn behind the camera.
JOKER has been a controversial film since it hit theatres, loaded with perceptions that its a propaganda piece fueling class envy, that its a direct reflection of the current political climate, that it will inspire violence.
You take out of it what you bring to it.
Like "Taxi Driver", it's a depressing slide into mental illness inside the head of a very disturbed man.
Is Arthur's take real? Discoveries within (that wont be teased or revealed here) challenge everything you think you've seen. It could inspire long discussions around major plot points and where they exist.
For that alone, JOKER elevates into the top realm of DC films.
Pile on Phoenix's career high performance and you have one of the darkest mainstream films in recent history.
There's nothing funny about JOKER, but there's plenty to revel in from it's late 70's Warner Bros opening logo to that twisted final scene.
JOKER gets an A. The only laugh you'll hear in the theatre is that wailing, sing-song cackle of madness that Arthur unleashes, off kilter and ill-timed.