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Joker is a daring and provocative origin story from DC tracing the beginnings of one of the greatest comic book villains of all time, back to one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Fleck is a man with issues of mental illness who lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), goes to therapy and works as a clown at a low level entertainment company. Arthur has dreams of being a stand-up comedian and delusions of grandeur, like being on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) Show. Arthur has a hard life and is picked on and beaten up by the thugs in a lawless Gotham City. Things start to change for Arthur, both good and bad, when he uses a gun he’s given by a coworker to defend himself, against three young and abusive Wall Street types on the subway. An uprising of the haves vs the have-nots ignites in Gotham over the incident, with clown faces as the symbol of those deprived of a better life. This fuels Arthur’s inner rage and delusional nature and starts him on the road to becoming the clown prince of crime we all know.
Joker is exceptionally directed by Todd Phillips and written by he and Scott SIlver and is a disturbing and dark take on the origins of a super villain. Phillips makes the movie all the more effective by keeping it grounded and the lack of an over-the-top comic book style, makes the portrayal more realistic, thus relatable, and intense. Gotham is not a Blade Runner-esque city, but a New York of the early 80s with crime, decadence and filth at an all-time high. Arthur is disturbed as it is, but is constantly pushed, picked on and preyed upon by Gotham’s dirty underbelly and apathetic elite. Arthur’s mental illness is treated head on by the script and we do feel bad for him as he grew up in an environment with a single mother with her own mental issues, along with her abusive boyfriends. The city of Gotham pushes him till he snaps and a madman is created. Fans fear not, as the links to the Dark Knight are there. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is running for mayor and not only is Arthur told the delusion by his mother that he is Wayne’s illegitimate son, he also meets young Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) when he tries to talk to his “dad” at Wayne Manor. The death of Bruce’s parents is also part of the goings on and signals what is to come for both young Mr. Wayne and Arthur who comes to want to be known only as “Joker”. It adds up to a dark and fascinating look at abuse, mental illness and how it drives one meek fellow to becoming a violent and quite unhinged psychopath. It’s a unique take on one of the comics greatest villains and an intense and sometimes shocking comic book themed film. Be warned, there is graphic violence and it is treated without humor unlike in the R-rated Deadpool flicks.
Joaquin Phoenix is simply brilliant as Arthur Fleck/Joker. From his mannerisms, body movements and overall performance he is riveting as first a pathetic and sad man trying to exist in a world completely unsympathetic to his mental issues, to a man who finally finds his smile committing horrific acts. It is a career defining performance from an actor already known for his eclectic performances. Simply a brilliant portrayal. De Niro is good as talk show host Murray Franklin who sees footage of Arthur’s terrible stand-up and wants to exploit him for laughs. Zazie Beetz is sweet as his single mom neighbor whom Arthur’s forms a delusional attachment to. Brett Cullen is solid as Thomas Wayne, a man who the film boldly portrays as a bit of a rich a-hole, when he is far more saintly in other portrayals. The various supporting players including Frances Conroy as Arthur’s ill and fading mom Penny, are all top notch. A great cast!
In conclusion this is a powerful film whose bold and daring portrayal of a legendary comic book character’s beginnings makes it one of the most unique comic book themed films thus far. It features a masterful performance by it’s leading man and by using a grounded approach to the material, makes it far more real and thus ultimately frightening. Men like Arthur Fleck do exist outside the comic books. A great movie. One of the best of the year!
Rated 4 (out of 4) clown masks.