JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

REVIEW: “Joker” ★★★ and ½

Ambitious, complex, and powered by a transfixing and unsettling performance from Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker” is tough to watch at times, and that’s by design.

“Joker” delivers a memorable and potent, though uneven, viewing experience.

Ambitious, complex, and powered by a transfixing performance from Joaquin Phoenix, it’s tough to watch at times by design. It’s also ambiguous in terms of what director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover Trilogy“) is trying to convey in terms of messaging.

One thing Phoenix and Phillips do accomplish, though: they make you uncomfortable. One way or another, this one’s sure to get under your skin.

What’s it about?

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a particularly downtrodden resident of early 1980s Gotham City.

Arthur’s Gotham is dirty and unruly, its residents seemingly indifferent at best and randomly cruel at worst. It’s a tough place, especially for a guy who earns his keep as a clown and relies on medication to keep depression and negative thoughts at bay.

Like everyone else, Arthur has hopes and dreams. He aspires to one day make audiences laugh, just like his favorite late-night host, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). He hopes to create a better life for himself and his frail mother, Penny (Frances Conroy, TV’s “American Horror Story“).

But this Gotham is not a place where dreams are built. It’s a powder keg of anger, resentment, and frustration on the part of people who feel the powers-that-be simply ignore their suffering.

Though Arthur’s just as beat down by that status quo as anyone else, his unique afflictions keep him apart. They also make him an easy target for people needing to vent.

Until one day he hits back … hard. That act lights a fuse for Arthur and, to his surprise, the city around him.

Arthur’s about to let his mask of docility drop for good. When he does, the face beneath it is one that Gotham’s residents will remember forever.

RELATED: See our review of “Her”, also starring Joaquin Phoenix

Joker movie poster

Ode to Scorcese

Tonally, this standalone take on the comic book archvillain Joker has much more in common with Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” than with more recent Warner Bros. adaptations of DC Comics characters.

It’s dark, obviously, but it also approaches the material with gritty hyperrealism. There isn’t a hint of camp anywhere to be found here — Phillips keeps the proceedings grounded to avoid any dilution of the intensity he strives to maintain.

But where Phillips arguably owes the most is to Martin Scorcese films of the last century. In particular, “Joker” freely borrows plot elements, themes, and even Robert DeNiro himself from Scorcese’s “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver.”

In calling out to those films, Phillips seems to be aiming at a number of things. Yes, like “Taxi Driver” specifically, there’s an examination of how a person’s psyche can unravel right under the collective noses of an indifferent and hostile urban society.

In that respect, Phillips also delivers a not-so-subtle Scorcesian indictment of that society, which while maybe not directly responsible for creating an unhinged and murderous vigilante still fostered an environment where such a monster could arise.

Worth seeing?

Of course, nothing in “Joker” works without Joaquin Phoenix’s truly unsettling performance in the lead role.

While some might look at what Phillips crafts around Phoenix as an imitation of better films, the actor delivers as distinct and memorable an effort as any he’s produced in the last decade. He grants Arthur a malformed physicality that matches the character’s psyche, a strange, gaunt grandiosity that’s the cinematic equivalent of Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” or Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box.”

Admittedly, it’s not easy to watch and at two hours “Joker” can feel laborious even with Phoenix’s fine work on screen. But that work alone makes the film worth seeing. It’s what people will be talking about once they actually see the film, as opposed to all the pre-release buzz about the material potentially inspiring violent copycat behavior.

Joker

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy. Directed by Todd Phillips.

Running time: 121 minutes

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images.

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