Joaquin Phoenix delivers electrifying performance in harrowing 'Joker'

  • Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown but dreams of being a comic in "Joker."

    Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown but dreams of being a comic in "Joker." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) transforms from a crushed soul into Batman's future nemesis in "Joker."

    Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) transforms from a crushed soul into Batman's future nemesis in "Joker." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) transforms from a crushed soul into Batman's future nemesis in "Joker."

    Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) transforms from a crushed soul into Batman's future nemesis in "Joker." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

 
 
Updated 10/3/2019 6:12 AM

"Joker" - ★ ★ ★

Todd Phillips' supervillain origin tale "Joker" makes for a thin, grim, dystopian horror story buoyed by a perfectly pitched performance from an insanely skeletal Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A medical condition creates Arthur's hideous, maniacal cackle, a forced, nonstop laugh bleeding with sorrow, a survival mechanism that kicks in when Arthur feels nervous.

For two hours, Phoenix cackles his way through a bizarre and frightening metamorphosis from a crushed, innocent soul into a raging, demented agent of chaos, finally emerging as Batman's future ultimate nemesis, a deranged do-badder all dressed up (in clown makeup) with no place to go at the end.

Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver tap the dark 1988 graphic novel "Batman: The Killing Joke" as inspiration for a harrowing character study.

In 1981, Gotham City mirrors a period Times Square with grimy, gritty streets lined with garbage bags, porn theaters and rundown buildings gilded in graffiti.

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In this supremely squalid set design metaphor, Arthur works as a clown, but he aspires to be a stand-up comic. Arthur's weak grip on reality disintegrates when three white Wall Street-type bullies on the subway target him, unaware that a clown colleague has given him a gun. He uses it.

Newspaper headlines scream of a new vigilante, "Kill the Rich: A New Movement?" That sets in motion a class war between the have-nots -- dressed in militant clown garb -- and the callous ruling wealthy elite.

The ensuing riots make for lots of stylish action, but are actually less interesting than the conflict building within Arthur as he succumbs to nihilistic murderous rage.

And we can't hate him.

Phoenix supercharges this Martin Scorsese-lite polemic with a bombastic, electrifying portrayal of unyielding sympathy for Arthur, whose desperation to connect with others descends into despair.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On the elevator, Arthur finds a kindred spirit in a single mom named Sophie (Zazie Beetz), after she puts her fingers to her head like a gun. He responds with the same gesture (recalling Travis Bickle from Scorsese's "Taxi Driver") and that becomes a morbid motif for "Joker."

Arthur lives with his aging, nutty mother (Frances Conroy) in a dingy apartment where they watch a black-and white TV, mostly to see "Live with Murray Franklin," a Johnny Carson "Tonight Show" knock-off.

Robert De Niro has twisted fun playing Franklin, a TV personality like the Jerry Lewis character in Scorsese's "King of Comedy." (In that movie, De Niro plays a mentally ill comedian, a role somewhat mirrored by Arthur in this one.)

None of the powerful, such as Franklin, cares for anyone else, not even zillionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), the father of little Bruce.

Wayne wants to become mayor for the citizens who matter: the wealthy, the people who can sit through Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" without seeing any connection between the desperate financial conditions of the Great Depression and the current state of affairs.

In my review of the horror tale "Ma," I wrote that a society creates its own monsters through bullying. Through rejection. Through insensitivity and dehumanization.

And monsters must be dealt with.

But that's for another movie, mainly, Christopher Nolan's made-in Chicago mini-masterpiece "The Dark Knight."

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Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen

Directed by: Todd Phillips

Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated R for language, sexual situations, violence. 122 minutes

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