It’s easy to be cynical about “Joker,” in particular following an obnoxious Oscar campaign and its audience’s hostility in the face of criticism. But really, this is one of the decade’s best movies, in my opinion: Like a bat out of hell (or, out of 1970s cinema), the movie delivers an emotional gut punch that cleverly uses society’s fascination with origin stories and superheroes both, and subverts their tropes to make many valid, red-hot points about the roles and responsibilities governments have to their respective societies. In the titular role, Joaquin Phoenix is phenomenally affecting, capable of communicating emotional complexity and gradual psychological decline without changing the expression on his face or losing the audience’s sympathy along the way. The way that director Todd Phillips manages to extract Phoenix’s capabilities and use them as both springboard and mirror for the audience’s own complicated relationship with society and government is truly remarkable, and manages to focus the audience’s attention on “what” is being communicated instead of “how.” Along with a strong supporting cast and a visual approach that deliberately recalls quintessential 1970s American cinema (like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Sidney Lumet’s “Network”), “Joker” is one of those movies that is both an homage to grand cinema while also functioning as an emotionally complex, occasionally shocking character study in its own right.
Rating: ★★★★★ (out of 5)