Forget the title. Abandon everything you know about the Joker character from the Batman movies and DC Comics source material. Forget the previous screen iterations of the Joker. For just a moment, and I'll dare say, forget about the most popular and beloved version from Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Don't even think or expect this to be a superhero movie. There are no fancy latex costumes and certainly no studio powered CGI. Made from a frugal budget and running at a healthy 120 minutes, this film doesn't promise anything you would expect in a Hollywood blockbuster and doesn't ask for anything in return either. But right from the very first minute, you will be smitten, because this is essentially a story about Arthur Fleck, and not really about the Joker as we've seen before.
Never heard that name before? Don't worry, no one else has. That's because almost everything about this film is fresh and reimagined; but also masked with layers of familiarity. I'm referring to a very cinematic late 1970s New York City with a distinctive Martin Scorsese vibe. And although several scenes seem to say we are watching the story unfold in Gotham City, what we see is the naked soul of New York and not DC Comics' mirror image of the former. With this comes chaos and panic in flawed, fractured, vile and unsympathetic people. Arthur Fleck doesn't believe he is one of these people. He cares for his ageing mother while trying to make ends meet as a rent-a-clown. He has dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, and an encounter with TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) might give him half a chance at success. But no one ever said life is fair, right? Between dealing with a neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable bursts of laughter and retreating from the pain of everyday life, Arthur has to cope with being an outcast, a loner, a looser, a misunderstood bystander desperate to be accepted. If this weren't bad enough, his mother reveals a family secret that becomes a catalyst and turning point in the story.
What follows is a two-pronged approach into dissecting what Arthur is becoming, while simultaneously implying why he must pursue who his father is. The answer and consequences of finding the truth is an eye-popping moment because the subject is just boldly imaginative and equally subversive to everything we think we know about the character. Which to its credit, makes this film a head-smacking original. And while the Joker is much more than an origins story, this is a film made with a lot of creative freedom, which is clearly visible in the character arc of Arthur Fleck. That means very little or no studio arm twisting to rope in the cash cow. You could say director Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character have not only reimagined the Joker from an iconic villain to devastating vigilante, they have rewritten events and characters from DC Comics into Arthur's world. In doing so, they have written and published a cinematic language that was once lost, forgotten, eroded by the cash flow that came from tentpole Hollywood blockbusters, that ironically, includes superhero films to blame.
While the story is linear and simple to follow, it does everything but give you easy answers. What the film is really aiming at is the moral and mental conflict, and physical and psychological transformation of an ordinary man into a pathological killer. As this person, Joaquin Phoenix is incredibly and immensely watchable, going from childlike innocence to someone capable of unimaginable terror. Equally astonishing is his actual transformation into a sort of contortionist with a unique cackle that sounds like a crow on concentrated caffeine. You can't take your eyes off him, and while you are subconsciously aware Arthur is a work of fiction, at no point will you have the time to compare Phoenix to other actors who played the Joker. Another interesting inclusion is De Niro, who at first appears to be in a cameo role. But there is more to his inclusion than it seems. Outside throwing back to similarly introverted roles in Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), as the aforementioned Scorsese psychological dramas set in New York, De Niro also has a key role in molding Arthur. You may see it coming but when it happens, it's a shocker and in itself worthy of a second viewing.
Dark, gritty, and at times unsettling, this is Joaquin Phoenix like never before, and the same can be said about the new Joker; but also hauntingly beautiful and an impressive cinematic achievement. Unconcerned with any or all previous versions of the titular character, Joker will leave you with an overwhelming sense of empathy for a person just trying to fit in. If you don't see it that way, the joke's on you.