‘Joker’ lets loose in the R-rated realm


Warner Bros.

Joaquin Phoenix portrays the most sinister Joker yet.

Lance Nelson, Staff Writer

Do not take your kids to see the new “Joker” movie. Let’s start off with that not-so-obvious tidbit of information. In the age of family-friendly superhero franchises — marketed to children and their parents, who shell out countless dollars on costumes — DC Comics just threw the middle finger up to all of that. And it was glorious. 

DC Comics has an uneven reputation in filmmaking. As it continues to operate in the shadows of the mega-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it almost seems as if it has a contractual requirement to release one mediocre movie for each enjoyable movie it creates (ie: the banal “Justice League” followed the inventive “Wonder Woman.”) The “Batman” comic book series has been its shining beacon of hope, the inspiration for countless films despite the limited source material. This time around, DC Comics may have found its niche in the dark trenches, among the more disturbing films that bear the restricted R rating.

The anti-hero is an American icon, and the Joker, as played by Joaquin Phoenix in this new self-titled movie, is one of the best/worst. Combining society’s fear of clowns with our tired stigmas surrounding mental health issues, the character revels in the demented, and plays to a captivated crowd. In this newest version of Joker’s story, Phoenix lets loose in an exceedingly dark Oscar-worthy performance that will leave viewers feeling sorrow for the twisted character he creates, while questioning their sympathy. While the first hour of character development may be seen as a slow burn, it is worth sticking around. Viewers will be rewarded for their perseverance.  Nothing is as it seems, and the truly shocking plot twists are refreshing in a genre that typically seems to give away almost everything in the trailers. 

In addition to Phoenix, the movie is graced by the exceptional Frances Conroy, who plays the Joker’s fragile mother. The relationship between these two adds a well-rendered layer of interpersonal development, one that gives depth to the villain’s upbringing and enhances viewers’ sense of empathy. By relying completely on characters, and actual acting, rather than expensive CGI, the emphasis remains exactly where it should be: on key challenges facing humanity in our troubling times. Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, enhanced this sensibility by securing music composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who worked on “Arrival” and “The Revenant.” The results in the film’s brooding and soaring score are mesmerizing. 

Now, back to that R rating. This movie is definitely dark, and it dives into some pressing themes, including wealth inequality, human dignity, and, of course, crime. Fans may think that they know the story of the wide-mouthed, tormenting clown, but in this treatment, they’re in for a gory awakening. And this movie refuses to share the spotlight with the series’ masked hero, Batman. “Joker” belongs to Phoenix and Phoenix alone, and audiences follow the character as he becomes unhinged, and as society continues to let him fall through the cracks, without a savior in sight. Although the film is set in the fictional metropolis of Gotham, the societal issues are real, and reflect difficult themes. Though popular movies like “The Purge” series have addressed some of these same topics, I was not ready for where this movie went, narratively, or the level of violence and havoc that it created to reach that point. Yet this unpredictable nature, in a genre known for maintaining convention, only served to make it more compelling. It seems as though DC Comics has finally found a way to stand out, and it’s bloody and thrilling.

“Joker” isn’t the best movie within the superhero/supervillain genre, but it doesn’t seem to want to be part of that genre anyway. It wants to chart its own erratic path. If you’re seeking something fresh in a sea of sequels, you may want to give this one a chance. Just please, leave the kids with a sitter.

“Joker” is now playing in theaters.