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Movie review: One of the year's best films is equal parts bleak and compelling

IMBD PHOTO - Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in the 'Joker,' which will be released Friday in area theaters.


4.5 of 5 stars

DC Films

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy

Release date: Oct. 4

Let's get this out of the way from the jump – 'Joker' director Todd Phillips is wrong about "woke culture" ruining comedy and he is not doing the film any favors by wading into the worst kind of political waters. His movie is a triumph of filmmaking and doesn't need to be viewed through a narrow political lens; it's important that people who disagree with Phillips not give in to their desire to "cancel" his art.

Joker is a haunting, macabre portrait of a broken man that explores our worst tendencies. It's funny, horrifying, entertaining and upsetting – all woven into a narrative that adds depth to one of the most prominent villains in comic book lore.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is the prototypical loser working a dead-end job in fictional Gotham. He is humanized through his various plights – from troubles at work to his mental illness to his complicated family history.

Fleck's mother, played by Frances Conroy, is often what grounds the delusional protagonist in some form of reality. Fleck isn't mentally well and he clearly isn't getting the help he desperately needs – even if he's popping several pills a day.

His humanization, undoubtedly, creates a moral dilemma in viewers' heads when things turn inexplicably dark for Fleck. He's just a down-on-his-luck weirdo, right? Those people deserved what happened to them, right?

No and no. Stop yourself when watching this movie and realize that, while Phoenix's portrayal is incredible and emotionally resonant, you're not supposed to like this guy. He's a selfish lunatic who doesn't deserve the idolization he seeks. The only thing you should root for is a more adequate system of mental health services in Gotham.

What concerns me is the willingness of many in the audience to cheer for the skull-bashing, maniacally laughing antihero at the center of this move – some even laughed along with him while he did genuinely horrible things. Fleck is not a guy that anyone should be rooting for. The system failed him, yes, but he is responsible for his own actions.

All that being said, Phoenix is so good in this movie that he might win an Oscar. He lost more than 50 pounds for the role of the skinny, psychotic clown and went to places as an actor that made the hair on one's neck stand to attention.

Robert De Niro plays a small but important role as television host and comedian Murray Franklin, who Fleck idolizes as he tries to make a name for himself in standup comedy. Franklin becomes more and more prominent as the film progresses, with De Niro lending his legend to an already gripping plot.

The second half of Joker is still seared into my brain nearly 24 hours later. It's worth a relatively slow start for the gut-wrenching payoff – a stretch of filmmaking so insane, so ludicrously beautiful that it transcends the source material.

Joker isn't just a good comic book movie – it's a damn good movie that is rooted in the human experience, refusing to give in to the rigid structure of good vs. evil that is so often the case in DC and Marvel stories. The curtain is open for evil in Joker, allowing it to stroll on stage and do its dance with clown makeup, green hair and bloodstained hands. Viewers just need to enjoy the movie for what it is and stop taking ownership of – or seeking guidance from – other people's art.

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