★★★★ ½

Joker, the quintessential villain of the DC universe, comes to life with his own origin story by director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) in a narrative he co-writes with Scott Silver (8 Mile). With a dark and gritty overtone, this new backstory might receive some resistance from long-time fans of the Batman saga, but this should not prevent anyone from going to see this brilliant entry into the franchise.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man plagued by failure and mental issues, can’t seem to catch a break in life. Still living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), he squeezes out a living as a clown while trying to succeed as a comedian. Ultimately, events conspire to show him that, while he may not be special or even normal, he certainly is different. The more Arthur learns about who he is and why he faces certain challenges, the more he embraces who and what he has become.

The first half of the story is very bleak, almost to the point that one wonders whether to leave before the punch line. However, there is an intense undercurrent that keeps the viewer morbidly entranced. A feeling of being an anonymous observer in Arthur’s failures as the story gathers steam creates a fascination in the character that does not allow the viewer to let go, leading to a climax that could befit no other character than the Joker.

As much as the well-crafted story drives the film, equal credit goes to the exceptional performance by Phoenix, who captures every moment of a tormented, mentally-ill being as though he were the character himself—clearly preparing both mentally and physically for the role. The film focuses almost exclusively on Arthur; his failures, his torment, and his rebirth. There is rarely a moment in which the actor does not seem to be organically living out the situation rather than portraying a role.

The cinematography is as dark and frenzied as the film, seemingly to get into the mind and the moods Arthur experiences through the use of close-ups, lighting, and camera angles. The setting, dreary and hopeless like Fleck himself, adds to the grim atmosphere. The soundtrack is almost intrusive at first but ultimately weaves into the tale until it becomes a living part of the madness.

There is commentary on social structure and the differences between the haves and have-nots, and this is where purists may take issue—particularly in the changes to Thomas Wayne. However, Phillips and Silver choose to include a single, letter-perfect scene of the pivotal moment in young Bruce Wayne’s life that should help soothe this a bit.

Joker is a slow-accelerating-to-thrill-ride study into what makes madness fall off the cliff into psychopathy. Despite the comic book origins of the character, the subject is no laughing matter and is not a film for children. That said, adults that choose not to see it may find that the joke is on them.