I have rarely seen a piece media evoke such an evolving response that went from “we live in a society” memes to “this could be dangerous.” This psychological thriller initially premiered in competition at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. To the surprise of pretty much everyone in the industry, it won the prestigious Golden Lion award and continued its streak at TIFF the following week. Following what can only be described as one of the most unnecessary firestorms in recent memory, it was later released in theaters worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures on October 4th, 2019. After breaking records for the biggest opening weekend in October, it has gone on to gross over $937 million at the box office against a budget of $55 million- way below the standard comic book movie budget. Several sources have indicated that it might become the first R-rated film to break the billion-dollar mark. And while some outlets have cooled since its premiere, it has maintained a generally positive critical reception and huge Oscar buzz for its star’s performance. Directed by Todd Phillips, the filmmaker and co-writer Scott Silver originally came up with the film as an answer to the struggling DC Extended Universe. It apparently took them over a year to convince Warner Bros. to release the film as they had conceived it: a hard-R character study with no DCEU connections, no sequel setup, and a mid-range cost. While the cast and crew came together fairly quickly, there was a brief incident during filming when extras were trapped inside a train car, and a SAG-AFTRA rep was sent to monitor the rest of production. It also generated enormous controversy in the weeks leading up to release when some worried that it might incite violence among “incels,” leading to increased police visibility and the film getting pulled from screening in Aurora, Colorado. Set in 1981 Gotham City, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a struggling and isolated party clown. He suffers from a mental illness that causes him to laugh and cry uncontrollably at inappropriate times, which hinders his relationships and aspirations for a stand-up comedian. During a time when the city is going through social and economic strife, Arthur discovers a shocking secret held by his mother Penny, played by Frances Conroy, who he takes care of. This revelation, plus a number of other random and disturbing events happening in the city, propels him into madness as he decides to embrace his clown persona: The Joker. I’ll be honest, I only really became interested in this movie when Joaquin Phoenix signed on. I’ve never been fond of finding out the titular character’s backstory, as his mystique is part of the reason he’s such an endearing villain. But hearing tale that it was a mid-budget, R-rated character study rather than just a straightforward superhero story made it sound more enticing. The trailers showed exactly what I was hoping out of the film, as more of a street-level drama than a massive CGI-filled ensemble epic. Even with all of the controversy surrounding it, (We’ll get to that in a moment) I still had hopes Todd Phillips would be able to at least deliver something mighty interesting. And as it stands, Joker isn’t quite as brilliant as it wants to be, but it’s undoubtedly a big step forward for the genre in many ways. It’s very clear that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver pay a great deal of homage to early Scorsese films, especially Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Like the films of that legend, who was initially onboard as a producer, it tries to take a look at a mentally ill man disregarded by society who’s desperate for approval and attention from everyone. This is particularly spurred on because the city of Gotham is in such a state of disarray, and even Arthur’s social worker admits that the city doesn’t care about people like them. This portrait of mental illness and the violence it hath brought has also created an extraordinary controversy that, frankly, got blown way out of proportion. Regardless of the film’s deeper implications about the character, the idea that it would incite armed violence among an online community of incels is far too extreme, even with the current state of gun violence in America. Joker may leave some things to be desired in its exploration of these themes, but at almost no point does it seem like it’s glorifying his actions. Honestly, the mere fact that a major studio film like this even tries to approach these ideas, let alone with its bleak and apocalyptic tone, should be commended. In any case, Joaquin Phoenix continues his white-hot streak with one of his best performances here as Arthur Fleck. With a considerable amount of weight lost and an unassuming demeanor, he’s absolutely terrifying to watch as he spirals downward into something truly demented. He’s not afraid to speak his mind to other people, condescendingly telling his social worker, “All I have are negative thoughts.” By the end of the film, his body language has completely transformed in such a way that the Academy just has to recognize it. Robert De Niro also does some fine work as Murray Franklin, a talk show host whom Arthur is obsessed with. A direct callback to his early Scorsese roles, he convincingly portrays a guy who always wants to get to the next punchline, even at other people’s expense. Frances Conroy isn’t in the film for long, but she leaves an impression as Arthur’s confused and ill-stricken mother Penny. Although it’s clear that she’s having some delusions, we see how Arthur genuinely cares for her when everyone else has left. Other players include Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s cynical yet kind neighbor, Glenn Fleschler as a manipulative clown colleague, Shea Whigham and Bill Camp as GCPD detectives investigating Arthur’s activities, and Brett Cullen as self-righteous billionaire Thomas Wayne. While some are more important than others, they all feel perfectly fit for the decadent world created here. And from a technical perspective, Joker is certainly distinctive from many other comic book adaptations out there. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher creates a gritty, grimy aesthetic for 1980s Gotham. There’s a stark contrast in colors that helps make the frame feel deceptively inviting and gives a sort of grim beauty to the world. The camera is often steady and focused, always trying to follow Arthur as his movements constantly change. The most weirdly compelling moment comes at the end of the first act, when Phoenix launches into an improvised dance routine in a dilapidated bathroom, all captured on one shot. Jeff Groth’s editing job is similarly dark and disjunctive, always knowing exactly how long to linger on a subject. There are a handful of scenes where Arthur is laughing (Or crying) uncontrollably and the camera stays fixed on him as he tries to contain it. There are also a number of shots and cuts done in slow-motion, which helps to show how isolated he is in his world. Hildur Guðnadóttir provides the instrumental film score, and it’s one of the year’s most haunting and terrific. Far removed from other operatic soundtracks of the genre, this one is deeply unnerving and nefarious, much like the titular character. It relies heavily on low strings and percussion to build an atmosphere of tension and unease as Arthur gradually becomes the Joker. At first it seems somber as literally everyone and everything Arthur interacts with ends badly. But by the end, it’s come around to a more revelatory score, one where he finally embraces his clown persona. I can’t wait to see what else Guðnadóttir has in store for cinematic scores. Joker is a moody, sporadic, and sincerely disturbing reimagining of the greatest villain in any medium. Although I was initially skeptical of what it would come out as, Todd Phillips has crafted a real game-changer in comic book adaptations. It also helps that it’s anchored by a terrifyingly convincing performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who’s able to make this version wholly his own without trying to imitate or outdo his predecessors. Even though some aspects and themes of the film are still questionable, it’s hard not to least admire the attempt to create something truly different in this genre. If Warner Bros. actually goes ahead with the proposed DC Black label- one-off, auteur-driven comic adaptations with a mature edge -then I will be so satisfied. More of these, please.