Joker Review: Joaquin Phoenix Elevates This Disturbing Origin Tale

Joker Star Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix in Warner Bros Pictures’ ‘Joker.’

“For my whole life I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do…and people are starting to notice,” says Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) to his case worker in the comic book-inspired psychological crime drama, Joker.

Arthur Fleck’s a struggling hire-by-the-day clown who aspires to be a stand-up comedian. His life’s goal is to make people smile and laugh. Arthur does the best he can to take care of his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) and to just get through the day without being bullied or picked on. The socially inept wannabe funnyman lives in Gotham City which is going through tough times. Crime’s on the rise as is the unemployment rate. (Similar to New York in the late 1970s and early ’80s).

Experiencing failure after failure, a nearly constantly bullied Arthur feels abused and beaten. Making matters worse is the fact he doesn’t have anyone to turn to for help. Thus begins his slow descent into madness and murder as he starts to evolve into who he was always meant to be…the criminal who causes chaos and anarchy in Gotham City known as The Joker.

Gritty, violent, and disturbing, Joker is a twisted psychological drama featuring an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s an origin story of perhaps the most popular villain in DC Comics but make no mistake, this is not a “comic-book” movie. It’s a film that shows how an odd loner who has trouble connecting to people is pushed aside and abused by a society that has become cruel and unforgiving.

Phoenix delivers a powerful performance as Arthur, a sad, awkward soul who’s never been able to catch a break and has experienced only abuse and hard times his whole life. His slow metamorphosis from a struggling, well-meaning, and eager to work entertainer into the killing clown named Joker is intriguing and highly disturbing. His performance is one of the best this year and is sure to nab him an Oscar nomination.

Director Todd Phillips (best known for The Hangover films) and production designer Mark Friedberg create a believable Gotham City that is dirty, crime-riddled, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The set design evokes a time in America when violent crime was rampant and ordinary citizens turned their backs on those in pain and struggling to survive.

Phillips’ script seems to borrow ideas and scenes from the classic Martin Scorsese films, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. The film imitates their vibe so often that it begins to lose its originality and its focus on Joker’s origin story. There’s a scene set late at night showing Arthur playing with a gun and moving around his apartment. It mimics Scorsese to the point you’d reasonably expect Phoenix as Fleck to utter the “You talking to me?” line, à la Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

Joker‘s score is eerie and it effectively helps to show Arthur’s journey into madness. Unfortunately, it’s also also overused in the film and becomes monotonous. Also overused to the point of annoying and even headache-inducing is Arthur’s uncontrollable creepy laugh. By using these elements repeatedly, they lose the emotional impact they had when first introduced in the film.

Brooding, dark, and controversially brutal, Joker is an effective and troubling crime drama lifted by an Oscar-worthy performance delivered by Phoenix.


MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images

Running Time: 122 minutes

Release Date: October 3, 2019