Todd Phillips, the filmmaker known best for comedies such as Old School and The Hangover trilogy, has ventured into more serious fare with his adaptation of the nefarious Joker. Joker is a psychological thriller that stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen and is co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver (The Fighter). This incarnation of Batman's greatest archnemesis is a character study of a man's descent into madness. It's a chilling portrait of violence and chaos and may prove to be one of Phoenix's best performances to date.

Joker is loosely based on the DC Comics graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, which is a Joker origin story. This, too, is an origin story whereas Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown entertainer living in a dingy Gotham City apartment with his mother, Penny (Conroy). Arthur has a neurological disorder which causes him to laugh uncontrollably (and at the most undesirable times), and a result he's on 7 different prescribed medications. Because Arthur is seeing a social worker in order to obtain those prescriptions, it's clear he's not living his best life.

Early on audiences witness Arthur's haplessness; he's dressed as a clown twirling a business sign when kids come along and take the sign. Arthur chases them, resulting in him being beaten up by the kids. It's an obvious metaphor for how life beats up the poor, ill and unfortunate. But that scene, along with Phoenix's performance, establishes Arthur, his situation and his future outcome. Early on you can't help but wonder when he's had enough.

From an acting standpoint, Phoenix is in total control. Phoenix is one of the few actors who transforms into his character. In effect, he's no longer a character; he just is. The change from scripted character to actual person is truly realized once the clown paint goes on and Arthur becomes Joker. Arthur goes from ignored and mocked to crazy and dangerous. It's incredible to witness and I was left shocked and disturbed. As Arthur inched closer to becoming Joker the more bothered I became.

Joker's violence has been a source of controversy since before its wide release. The realism that accompanies the violence is the catalyst for the uproar; so much that police presence has increased during opening weekend (as I write this some Joker screenings have been canceled because of threats). Phoenix's Joker lines up closely with Heath Ledger's Clown Prince of Crime but Phoenix goes well past that in terms of lack of sanity and total disregard for morality (past, Phoenix may be cinema's best Joker). For me, the violence was difficult to watch because it's something that has and can easily happen.

Joker's look, feel and tone are obvious nods to Martin Scorsese. Phillips isn't subtle in his admiration of the celebrated director as his latest borrows plenty from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. The question that arises is how you perceive Phillips' vision – is it an apt homage or failed hack job? I'm a fan of that it's a fine homage that doesn't surpass the source material. Standing alone, though, Joker is excellent and the fact that it chilled me more than many recent horror films speaks volumes of its impact.

With Halloween quickly approaching, Joker is opening at a great time. It's a film that's disturbing more than entertaining and is pushed forward by a haunting performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Phillips uses Joker to comment on mental illness, bullying, broken families and the state of society. He even goes to basic levels to comment on the constant battle between the rich and the poor. It's a little overstuffed, and some will detest that its perspective is solely from a "poor" white man's perspective, but there's no denying that the evils of the world can swallow you whole. That makes Joker one of the boldest superhero films since it's (obviously) not about a superhero but, like Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, it is a realistic look into the seedier aspects of life that happens to incorporate an iconic comic book character.

4.5 stars out of 5

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