Joaquin Phoenix gives a riveting performance in “Joker,” undoubtedly one of the more controversial and provocative movies of the year. Can the hard knocks of life rob a person of the gift of empathy? On one hand, that seems to be the story’s underlying theme, but, intentional or not, “Joker” is sending mixed messages.
This character study attempts to explain why a seemingly nice guy turned to the dark side long before he became Batman’s evil nemesis. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a party clown and wannabe standup comic just barely surviving in bleak 1970s Gotham City. Things never go his way. A mix of mental illness, societal apathy and social class strife are enough to push him over the edge. The ensuing violence and unrelenting darkness make “Joker” excruciating to sit through.
Writer/director Todd Phillips is best known for his broad comedies like “Old School” and the “Hangover” trilogy. His turn to the dark side is skillful enough to be taken seriously even though the movie is sometimes repetitious and its point of view, muddled. That leaves us with Phoenix’s immersive performance to carry the day…and carry it, he does. Phoenix may well become the second actor to win an Oscar for playing the Clown Prince of Crime.
Also opening this week, “Memory: The Origins of Alien” is a documentary about the making of Ridley Scott’s 1971 sci-fi horror classic, “Alien.” “Desolation Center” is a documentary about guerrilla desert happenings of the 1980s that served as the inspiration for later events like Burning Man, Lollapalooza, and Coachella. Gallows humor is the order of the day with “Harpoon,” a dark horror comedy about a group of bickering friends aboard a boat that becomes stranded in remote waters…and attempt to refrain from killing one another.