Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Director Todd Phillips’ new film Joker may center on the most iconic comic book villain of all-time, take place in Gotham City, and feature a young Bruce Wayne as a side character, but the film is far from your typical comic book movie. Although it is based on characters created for comic books, the movie shares more in common with the gritty crime dramas of 1970s American cinema than it does with any recent superhero film.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a poor man with a history of mental illness, who spends his days working as a clown, and his nights taking care of his ailing mother. One of their favorite activities is watching The Murray Franklin Show, a Tonight-style late-night talk show hosted by Robert DeNiro’s Murray. Arthur fancies himself as a stand-up comic and dreams of one day being on Murray’s show, but his joke book currently reads more like a horrifying nightmare than a barrel of laughs.

Arthur’s life really starts to unravel when he loses his job, is told by his social services therapist that they no longer have the funding to keep treating him, and is embarrassed on television by Murray, the man he considered to be his hero. Arthur also suffers from a pathological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at times when it may not always be appropriate. This leads him to an unfortunate confrontation with some drunken Wall Street-types on the subway—a confrontation that unexpectedly leads to Arthur finding the attention and praise he has always craved, even if that praise is misplaced. He unwittingly becomes a symbol for the underprivileged in a city that is ready to break under the tension of its class divide.

Joker is a unique beast of a movie that could be interpreted in a number of ways, leading towards it being the clear favorite for the title of the year’s most polarizing movie. And the movie does not shy away from tackling difficult and prescient subject matter such as mental illness, poverty, class divide, and violence as a solution. It is impossible to watch Phoenix’s characterization of Arthur Fleck and not think about the many persons who have committed seemingly inexplicable acts of violence in recent years. This movie depicts a version of the classic Joker character that feels uncomfortably close to reality and explores what outside influences might contribute to creating such a monster. The way the movie makes it seem that a character like the Joker, one of the most violent fictional characters ever created, could easily rise out of a society not too far from our own current environment—and that there might be others who see his anarchy as heroic—is incredibly scary.

The movie is clearly inspired by the early films of director Martin Scorsese, who had a hand in getting the film produced. The most obvious influences being 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1982’s The King of Comedy, both starring Robert DeNiro. DeNiro’s part in Joker is a direct role reversal of his character in the latter, in which he played a wannabe comedian who was obsessed with a talk show host (Jerry Lewis, in a rare dramatic performance). It is certainly no surprise that Joker takes place in 1981, right in between those two Scorsese classics.

As dark and harrowing as the material is, Joker also manages to be an incredibly beautiful movie. Previously best known for comedies like Old School and The Hangover, director Todd Phillips teams with his cinematographer Lawrence Sher to create an absolutely stunning work of art. Every shot of this movie is perfectly framed and lit to evoke the best work of all the filmmakers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, including the aforementioned Scorsese.

Finally, there is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, a performance that has no equal. People will immediately want to compare it to the Oscar winning work of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, but to do so would be a fool’s errand. These are two vastly different performances in two vastly different styles of movie. One thing they should end up having in common, though, is an Oscar.

Phoenix’s performance is almost indescribable; it needs to be seen to be believed. First and foremost, he has created a unique laugh for the character that is equal parts funny, unnerving, and terrifying. And in many of these scenes where he is laughing hysterically, he is also crying. Actors have laughed and cried at the same time in movies before, but what Phoenix is doing here is on a completely different level. It is also an incredibly physical performance. Not only did Phoenix lose what must be an unhealthy amount of weight for the role, but whether he is chasing thugs down the street, dancing down a staircase, or simply maneuvering around his character’s apartment, the way Arthur Fleck moves is wholly original.

Whether or not someone appreciates the story Joker is telling will most likely depend on what they bring into it, but there is no denying the moviemaking craft on display in this film. From the off-the-charts lead performance, to the stunning direction and cinematography, to the brain-tingling musical score and strong soundtrack, Joker is a masterwork.

Joker opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.
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