by Tim Pompey

DIRECTED BY: Todd Phillips
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Robert De Niro
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
2 hrs., 2 min.

Welcome to a new Batman universe. You thought Heath Ledger was the ultimate Joker? Yeah, me too, until Joaquin Phoenix arrived. Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his 2008 performance, but he was in a supporting role. The new Joker is in practically every frame of this film and he overwhelms the screen. What will Hollywood give him?

DC Comics has their name on the marquee, but this is NOT a Batman film. Maybe you could call it a prequel. There are some connections to Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas, and to the young Bruce Wayne himself.

Still, director Todd Philips wants this to be a standalone based on a darker exploration of Joker’s brutal and unstable upbringing. One thing is for sure. It ain’t pretty and it ain’t funny. It is, however, mesmerizing.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a tortured soul trying to make a living as a rent-a-clown. There is irony in his career choice: Nobody is less funny or charming than Arthur. Nobody is less suited to his role. He’s on meds. He laughs uncontrollably. He has a delusional love affair. He’s antisocial. He carries a gun into a children’s hospital.

His job also puts him in danger. While waving a street sign, he gets robbed and beat up by young thugs. His boss chews him out for leaving his job post, and later fires him for the gun incident.

Inexplicably, Arthur wants to be a comedian and is given a short gig at a local comedy club. Not surprisingly, his routine bombs. It does, however, make the news. On a late-night TV talk show featuring Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), Franklin plays a couple of videos of Arthur’s performance and makes fun of him.

You know, of course, that Arthur is going to snap at some point. That moment arrives when, dressed in full clown garb, he comes to the defense of a young lady riding the subway. After three Wall Street executives beat him up, he shoots two of them dead, chases down a third and executes him. The killing launches street riots in Gotham and makes the so-called clown killer a celebrity figure.

Phillips, better known for his comedy (Old School, The Hangover), has stripped his villain of any personable or comic traits. Traditionally, Joker has been known for his vicious sense of humor. Not in this movie. Arthur is downtrodden, angry, depressed, confused, delusional. His jokes reveal his bitterness. Phillips relies on audience sympathy for someone whose life has been so thoroughly bludgeoned.

Does it work? I think it depends on your willingness to buy into Joker’s character, which is morally gray and pushes our buttons to test our response. Does our sympathy extend to a man who kills his mother? Hmm. That’s a tough one.

What is undeniable is Phillips’ visual eye as he captures up close and personal the deterioration of a man ruthlessly transformed into a cackling villain. He uses slo-mo to great effect, especially as Arthur expresses himself through dance. There is tragedy and joy in the movements. It’s like watching a great rock and roll video: The human body speaks its own language.

Would I recommend Joker? Well, what is your capacity for watching bloody tragedy and violence? This isn’t entertainment, but it is good filmmaking. In the spirit of Martin Scorsese, Joker will sweep you off your feet and into the sewers and slums of Gotham. For all the glamor and glitz of the bright lights, there are millions of Arthurs daily being ground underfoot and robbed of their dignity. It just so happens that Joker gets his moment in the sun and the studio lights. Is it worth the price he pays? That’s an open-ended question, and one that Phoenix forces us to confront — through his performance on display, yes, but not just him; our response as well.