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When Heath Ledger tragically passed in 2008, I honestly felt as if we had seen the last of the Joker on the big screen.His turn was so impossibly intense and introspective, he found a way to evolve

one of pop culture’s most beloved and recognizable villains into an entity that was completely his own. Ledger earned a posthumous Oscar for his unforgettable turn, and the character seemed set to fade into the annals of cinematic history.

Less than a decade later, thanks to the birth of the DC Universe, the Joker reemerged. With fluorescent hair, a tattooed face, and a sparkly set of teeth, Jared Leto attempted to carve his own niche in the supervillain repertoire. His off-screen antics, which included live rats, a severed head, and bullets, became the stuff of legend, but when SUICIDE SQUAD was released, Joker was little more than a disappointing footnote. Under-utilized and surprisingly incoherent, his story line was a weird, woeful, jumbled mess.

Fresh off of this debacle, Todd Phillips, writer/director of comedies such as ROAD TRIP, OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER, announced yet another Joker production was in the works. This time, the tale would be an origin story that was entirely new. With no links to any of the established Batman canon, Phillips was set to explore the set of circumstances that would cause an individual to descend into anarchic madness. With the incredible Joaquin Phoenix tapped for the lead role, there was certainly no lack of intrigue and promise.

THE JOKER opened on October 4 and as this article goes to print, the polarizing film has grossed over $255 million domestically, and $750 million worldwide. Audiences have been divided over its quality, the message it conveys, and the necessity of its existence. While some see it as an exploitative and dangerous celebration of psychosis, others saw a complex and harrowing character study of a man pushed to the brink.

Though it is certainly difficult to watch at times, JOKER is one of the most spellbinding films of the year. Phoenix commands the screen like no other performer in recent memory, crafting an original and heartbreaking character that is familiar, yet entirely new. The audience knows, at least in some capacity, where the struggling party clown/failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) will end up, but it is his terrifying journey that keeps them enthralled. Afflicted by a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in the most inappropriate of situations and scenarios, the emaciated and psychologically tortured Arthur ineffectually floats through life with few friends, and fewer ambitions. Though he longs to be a successful comedian, and develops feelings for a neighbor his apartment building (Zazie Beetz), beyond that, he is very reminiscent of TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle. Living a largely solitary existence, with the exception of the time he spends with his mother (Frances Conroy), he is a damaged soul with a dangerous view of society, and his place within its social constructs

Though you’ll undoubtedly associate the character of Joker with his exploits with his future nemesis Batman, this is by no means a comic book movie. This is a dark, unsettling, thought-provoking drama. The action, when it does occur, is unflinchingly brutal. There are no superpowers on display, nothing blows up, and no one poised to swoop in and save the day. Given a resume that includes STARSKY AND HUTCH, and SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS, it’s truly remarkable that Phillips has crafted a film that is so extremely challenging and complex. The filmmaker has crafted a visually striking, carefully constructed exploration of madness, filled with a number of memorable and devastating sequences. The nuanced performance he was able to illicit from his star only enhanced the production, with Phoenix delivering a turn that should easily make him the front runner for the Oscar, and every other accolade imaginable. The anguish you feel for Arthur never evolves into admiration, and he is, undoubtedly, a villain. While sympathetic to parts of his plight, he is no hero, or the type of vigilante who fights for what is right. He is a broken man with broken dreams, hoping to get the last laugh against a society that has failed him.


A special thanks goes to Regal Cinemas at Destiny USA for allowing me to attend this month’s film.

Brian Miller