JOKER Review: Joaquin Phoenix Shines In Todd Phillips' Unnerving Psychological Thriller

Todd Phillips' controversial Joker movie arrives next week amid (mostly) positive reviews and quite a bit of backlash. Is all or any of it warranted? Find out what we made of the movie after the jump...

There's a perception among a lot of critics that Joker is an irresponsible film, as its content could inspire real-world violence. Many of them have chosen to discuss this in their reviews, but I'm not going to do that. Go see the movie for yourselves and decide where you stand on this issue, I'm just here to tell you whether I think it's worth your time and money.

Joker is not an easy watch, there's no doubt about that. If you're looking for some comic book movie escapism this is not the movie for you. It's violent, disturbing, and pretty much unrelentingly bleak. But it's also a stunningly shot, haunting character piece with a mesmerizing score from Hildur Gudnadottir and a truly outstanding central performance.

Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill loner with a condition that causes him to erupt in uncontrollable laughter. He gets by on medication and focuses most of his energy on his job as a street clown, but when his health care funding is cut and he finds himself out of work... well, to borrow a quote from an earlier incarnation of the character, "madness is like gravity... all it takes is a little push.”

A series of events drives Arthur completely over the edge, and he begins to enact what he sees as bloody retribution against those who've wronged him. His earliest crimes are understandable, if not condonable, but he soon begins to slip further and further away from any shred of humanity he may have had, freeing himself from the constraints of society and embracing his new persona.

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There's no doubt that we are asked to sympathize with Fleck early on, and he is depicted as a tragic figure. However, assertions that the film somehow glorifies his actions or holds him up as some sort of antihero are completely unfounded. The Joker is a murdering monster, and while he may be the protagonist, he is without question a villain.

Phoenix has been getting a lot of buzz for his work here and it really is warranted. At times he does threaten to go a little too far with the histrionics, but he manages to stay the right side of believable and delivers a chilling turn. This take on the Clown Prince of Crime may not have much in common with the iconic Batman villain from the comics, but he is genuinely terrifying at times, and, without getting too far into spoiler territory, there are signs that he could morph into The Joker eventually. Will he get the chance? Well, there could be a sequel, but this does feel very much like a standalone story and a follow-up seems unlikely.

The supporting players are all top notch, too, but nobody really gets enough screen-time to emerge as a standout. Zazie Beetz's role, in particular, is very underwritten, and she's basically used as little more than a plot device.

Joker is a powerful, devastating achievement. It definitely won't be for everyone and one could argue that Phillips does revel in nihilism to some extent, but at the end of the day this is an R-rated origin story for one of the most deranged, murderous villains in fiction, and the film reflects that. It may not make you feel good, but it will make you feel something, and sometimes that's enough.

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