For the first time since launching the "DCEU" (an interconnected series of films linking the DC Comics heroes together in a shared universe on the big screen), Warner Bros. and DC Comics movies and looking to introduce and isolated film which could be the first of many in the form of Joker. While it is unlike other films in the shared big screen universe by existing in its own space, it is also different in every other imaginable way -- from all comic book movies before it. Joker is a thrilling, haunting character study which happens to become a mysterious origin story for the best known villain in comic book history.
Hailing from his best known work with The Hangover movies, director Todd Phillips shows that he isn't checking in for the laughs -- unless they come from the deranged performance by his lead actor Joaquin Phoenix. Phillips focused more on the central character here, an abandoned and mentally ill Arthur Fleck, than on any larger DC Comics connections which fans of comic book movies have been trained to expect. It's not completely free of ties to a larger world but it has no desire to set any stage for future installments, spinoffs, sequels, or expansions -- which is almost a shame given how great of a launch it is for a compelling character.
Joker starts off slowly, meticulously allowing tremendous cinematography and a mesmerizing performance from Phoenix lead the charge. During this slow burn audiences will wonder where the movie could possibly be going but patience will be rewarding. As the movie and its titular character descend into madness simultaneously, the dark, twisted thriller takes off and never looks book. In fact, it's as if Joker takes a look at the darkest paths available and figures out creative ways to incorporate them into the same film. Some of those paths are so dark audiences won't possibly be able to see them coming and will find themselves in an uncomfortable emotional location along the journey.
Once Arthur's tragic story is established, Joker offers up terrifying levels of tension. In fact, it's scarier than most horror films of the year with its gritty, scary levels of realism. Furthermore, ties to real world epidemics facing the audience observing this work of fiction will act as disturbing reminders as a questionable message (if there is any singular message to be taken) is delivered. This movie is certainly not intended for younger audiences and will leave this a lesser tolerance for tense situations and violence feeling very uneasy. Intimate violence and a terrifying character drive Joker to an intense conclusion which will stick with audiences in the hours and days after watching it.
There has never been a movie like this in the genre. The conversation has long been whether or not a comic book movie can top The Dark Knight as the renowned "best" in genre. Like The Dark Knight, Joker transcends being simply a film based on any super heroes or villains. It becomes a piece of art loaded with raw beats and stirs up internal and external conversations for its audience.
While none of the characters play roles comparable in size to Phoenix's Arthur, familiar faces from around Hollywood pop in including Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beets, Brian Tyree Henry, and Brett Cullen. Some have more screen tine than others but none of the supporting character seem to bear a tremendous burden of individual relevance over the other. Each serve the story in drastically different ways, fueling Arthur's journey, and lending satisfying performances alongside the star.
Joker is loaded with mystery on top of its numerous twists. By the time it ends, viewers will be left with several questions about the experience, some of which might be scarily directed at themselves. Phoenix's Arthur laughs his way through terrible scenarios. For this, the actor demands an Oscar nomination it might not be the only nod this DC Comics movie earns. The cinematography, score, and direction create something unlike anything before it - -and it's terrifying, thrilling, and moving.
Whether or not Joker is a social commentary on issues such as poverty or mental illness, a new and mysterious take on the best known DC Comics villain, or just another unforgettable piece of cinema which producer Martin Scorsese is attached to, you'll need to see to believe it and, even then, you still might not believe it.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars