“Joker” has been met with waves of controversy leading up to its release. Critics who screened the movie at festivals claimed that this movie was so violent and twisted that it might inspire copycats to copy the fictional character’s action. Media outlets pedaled huge stories about possible shootings during opening weekend, similar to the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, seven years ago on opening night of “The Dark Knight Rises.” All of these events led to a mangled perception of what “Joker” really is. After finally seeing the movie, then seeing the movie again, all of this media coverage was totally unwarranted. The movie itself, on the other hand, is a ferocious masterwork from director Todd Phillips.

Joaquin Phoenix is the best I have ever seen him as Arthur Fleck. It’s easily the most demanding and fearless role of the year, so much so that I would be shocked if anyone else won Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards. Phoenix lost an absurd amount of weight for this role, but the physicality he bears isn’t even the most impressive part of his performance. In the film’s earliest scenes, before there’s even a glimpse of becoming “The Joker” in Arthur’s eyes, Phoenix is required to be so socially awkward and uncomfortable that you truly feel bad for him. Arthur has this nervous laugh that Phoenix brings such realism to that it never feels like he’s acting. I never once saw Joaquin Phoenix when I was watching “Joker.” I think this movie is worth seeing for his staggering performance alone.

The film is simply incredible to look at. Director of Photography, Lawrence Sher, has done an excellent job of capturing Gotham City in its dirtiest and craziest state. Sher makes a strong choice of shooting a large portion of Arthur’s scenes with a long lens, isolating him in every frame. This is genius storytelling through just the cinematography alone. It gives a sense of disconnect between Arthur and the rest of the city, creating not only a beautiful shot, but deepening the character’s motivations and anxieties. The sound design also is on another level in “Joker.” The moments towards the end of the film and the crimes that Joker commits are brutal and raw. Never are they handled in a way that seems flashy or cinematic. The excellent sound design adds to this raw style by using sharp sounds to accentuate the power Joker holds in each situation. Critics are inevitably going to give this movie flak for being another comic book movie, but “Joker” stands above the rest as one that feels like a unique vision.

I have but one problem with “Joker” which is kind of a nitpick since it was something I didn’t expect. I assumed that “Joker” would be a series of events that leads to Arthur Fleck becoming the Joker, which it ultimately is. But the film also includes an interesting plot thread that features Arthur searching for answers about his past. It’s a great little story element that works really well, but I think Phillips takes a little too long to introduce it. The film would be a lot more engaging if there were hints of this troubled past within his introduction, as opposed to introducing it 40 minutes into the film

The one word that keeps popping into my head to describe Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is “fearless.” Everything in this film is raw and unique to comic book movies as a whole. Not since “Logan” has a comic book movie been a pure character study. Joaquin Phoenix is normally great but his performance in this film is on another level. I’ve never been more on edge, uneasy or just uncomfortable, during a movie this whole year. This movie comes highly recommended, but only if you know what you’re getting into. If you know this isn’t your cup of tea, don’t see it. But, if you’re a fan of these kinds of movies, enjoy the ride.

Grade: A

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