Joaquin Phoenix’s Mesmerizing, Haunting Turn as ‘The Joker’

Christopher Karr


Todd Phillips, the co-writer and director of Road TripOld School, and the Hangover trilogy, is the mastermind behind Joker, which is by far the greatest comic book movie ever made. And it’s a comic book movie in the purest possible sense because it perfectly replicates the experience of reading comics as a kid — specifically Batman comics involving the Joker. 


The comic books I enjoyed growing up were entertaining, dangerous, disturbing, and ludicrously — even irresponsibly — violent. They had a way of twisting cruelty and dark comedy together into this unique fusion that was perversely thrilling. Joker is an anti-hero horror comedy. It’s genuinely funny and completely unsettling. Think Re-AnimatorGet Out, or Very Bad Things — but better. Much better.


Phillips’s achievement with this movie is nothing short of stunning. What separates this effort from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Phillips’s bona fide interest in the fundamentals of cinema: acting, directing, writing, and cinematography. The story is grounded and, at times, hyperrealistic, but it’s also ecstatic and visionary and audacious. It never takes itself too seriously (like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) and it also sidesteps the pitfall of trying too hard to be funny (in the glib, intolerable manner that has become a distinctive feature of MCU movies).



More than a few times, I’ve kicked myself for expecting the latest superhero theatrical event to be as good as the hype tends to suggest. The mainstream, CGI-engorged, video game movies that receive so much attention have continually left me mystified. I couldn’t understand why these comic book adaptations bear almost zero resemblance to the comics I couldn’t get enough of in my youth. 


Joker exemplifies that disconnect flawlessly, making other comic adaptations look neutered, whitewashed, dull, and counterintuitively unimaginative. That’s why Martin Scorsese couldn’t help but point out the obvious recently, saying that the Marvel movies don’t in any way represent “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” adding that they’re more similar to theme parks than cinema.


The Joker feels like a direct and powerful response to Scorsese’s insight. It’s a comic book movie that probes the human psyche with curiosity, wonder, and intuition, and it does so in such a subtle way that it never resorts to being maudlin or preachy. It is pure cinema, in the Scorsese sense, because it’s a movie designed to search and analyze the pending depravity and psychological fragility that befalls God’s Lonely Man. The cross-references that run through the film, ranging from Taxi Driver to The King of Comedy to the original comic book mythology, are so tightly structured that you might feel dizzy with elation. 



Joaquin Phoenix’s rendition of the Joker makes all other attempts to portray this fascinating character unwatchable. He nails it completely. He’s the first actor to truly understand the emotional and spiritual complexity of such a figure. Phoenix’s insight into the nuance of true psychosis is so penetrating and fearlessly realized that I simply cannot understand how he did it. Even after some critical reflection, I literally don’t know how this performance was possible. Even more, Phoenix seizes the opportunity to blur the lines between the psycho-performer and psycho-killer. In many ways, the movie is about acting itself, and that meta-filmic quality teases out the breathtakingly sly games the filmmakers are playing with theme, mood, tone and style.


The sheer rarity of Joker’s masterful accomplishments cannot be understated. It’s tempting to suggest that any viewer who feels uncomfortable or reluctant to give in to the goofy nightmare that this movie induces might also be uncomfortable with the fact that malevolence is a part of life itself. Existence is essentially unfair and the injustices pile one on top of the other until death mercifully opens its door. The Joker takes big swings at examining the complexities that are front and center in the very fabric of human behavior — and, most impressively, it does so in a palatable, entertaining way. 


The Joker is one of the best American movies of the past decade, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 


Author Bio:


Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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