The Joker is arguably the most iconic villain in comic book history. The diabolical terrorist who dresses as a twisted clown has a rich history of silver screen portrayals, from Jack Nicholson’s darkly cheeky interpretation in 1989’s “Batman” to Heath Ledger’s legendary 2008 role in “The Dark Knight” and Jared Leto’s brilliant performance in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” However, the character has never had a film all to himself, until now.
Enter writer-director Todd Philips and Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix with their origin story, “Joker.” Wrought with darkness, despair, grit and a powerful performance from Phoenix as the titular villain, the movie hits harder than any comic book film in years.
Taking cues from Martin Scorcese films such as “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” Philips proves himself not just a talented director who handles the source material with vigor and passion, but also a simple fan aiming to portray the character as best he can.
His excellent directorial skills craft numerous scenes of danger and tension as Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) finds himself battered and beaten, sometimes literally, by the society he lives in. A working clown with a laughing condition, it’s clear he is mentally unstable right from the start, but as he tries all he can to “smile and put on a happy face,” he realizes that society is not meant for him, and he is not meant for society.
Phoenix is incredible in the title role, the known method actor completely absorbing himself in his character. From his boisterous laugh to his accentuated bones and on-screen movements, Phoenix lives and breathes Arthur Fleck, pouring his every emotion into his performance and then some. Additionally, I haven't seen such extreme weight loss for a role since Christian Bale in “The Machinist,” Phoenix’s emaciated torso both emphasizes his performance and deeply disturbs the viewer.
The brisk pacing makes the 122-minute run time fly by, especially when Philips grips your attention with his apt suspense and impeccably-crafted cinematography. I even found myself shaking during several scenes, the most poignant being the film’s climax.
The thundering, doom-laden score by Hildur Guðnadóttir heightens the dread and desperation of the film and its central character, making his anguish perfectly audible.
The R-rating allows “Joker” to flirt with stellar gruesome violence and disturbing themes like no other comic book film before it, its deft editing is thrilling and there’s even a good amount of genuine humor sprinkled throughout the plot. It might not be the popcorn comic film you see for fun, but one viewing of “Joker” proves this modern masterwork to be no laughing matter.