“Joker” is a mature, nuanced and thought-provoking drama about the origin of one of cinema’s most iconic villains.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown-for-hire, is trodden by the world around him. As an aspiring comedian with severe mental illness, Fleck falls into a path of madness and chaos.

“Joker” also stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Brian Tyree Henry and Frances Conroy. It’s directed by Todd Phillips.


The film is one of the most socially conscious, artistically expressive and dramatically heavy films with a comic-book tie ever made. Phoenix possibly delivers his career-best performance, and Phillips successfully forays into more dramatic filmmaking territory.

Phillips is clearly inspired by Martin Scorsese’s earlier work. The most notable inspirations derive from “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” From the casting of De Niro as a late-night talk-show host, to sporting a mentally unhinged main character and overt visual parallels from each film, the inspiration behind “Joker” is clear.

Phoenix channels an emotionally distraught and mentally unhinged performance. He embodies the character beautifully, and with enough nuance to feel fresh in comparison to other actor’s interpretations. I can attest that he does the character justice. You haven’t heard a more eerily sounding Joker laugh than Phoenix’s.

His simultaneously heartbreaking and horrifying portrayal is deserving of a Best Actor nomination at the least. Down to the odd details of his carefree dancing or his guttural laughing condition, Phoenix is a pure show-stopper throughout. This is the kind of performance that’ll be talked about for years.

Phillips directs Phoenix carefully enough to make a point that he’s a mentally unstable protagonist. There’s no glorification of the atrocities he commits. Rather, the audience is given a glimpse at how society has a hand in creating the monster he becomes. This is how the social commentary is explored.

I commend “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher. He has collaborated with Phillips on the “Hangover” films, but you would never guess it. The quality bump in the cinematography department is mind-blowing. Similar to Phillips’ directing efforts in the film, you would never guess that they come from a comedy filmmaking background.

Sher implements memorable color palettes that dictate the brooding atmosphere. The film gets particularly colorful in the final act as Fleck sports a bright red suit and the iconic white and red face paint. A sequence involving Fleck dancing down a flight of stairs in slow-motion looks exhilarating.

The musical score by Hildur Gunadóttir is downright bone-chilling. The sonically unpredictable melodies mirror Phoenix’s unpredictable portrayal.

Featuring a main theme played on a cello, the track sets the tone for the entire film. I’d also go as far as saying the music is worthy of a Best Original Score nomination. The music is a character itself.

The only nitpick I had was a slight hiccup in pacing in the second act. This might be ironed out on future viewings as I get a better grasp on the overall story.

Phillips demonstrates extreme directing and storytelling skill with “Joker.” The cinematography is brash and striking. Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker will shock viewers. The music and tone spark a maturity that other onscreen interpretations have yet to achieve. I haven’t felt this uncomfortable or thought-provoked by a film all year.

“Joker” is an unwinding and brutal cinematic experience. It asks challenging questions with no defined answers. The dark and violent content holds a mirror up to the world that we experience every day. Beyond the performances and images, the sharp social commentary of the film hits the hardest. “Joker” is without a doubt one of the best films of 2019 yet.

“Joker” receives 4.75 stars out of 5. The film is rated R and runs for 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Ellis is a freelance writer.