Cesar Romero first brought the Joker character to the screen in 1966’s cartoonish Batman. Jack Nicholson offered a more sinister portrait of the villain in the 1989 version (“Wait’ll they get a load of me.”) Heath Ledger redefined the character with his brilliantly creepy portrayal in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Jared Leto in Suicide Squad? Well, everyone makes mistakes. 

But these are now all eclipsed by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix. If you ever doubted that Phoenix is among the most talented and certainly most committed actors working today, consider those doubts erased.

In this stand-alone origin piece, Arthur Fleck is a clown for hire with standup comedy aspirations.  He suffers from a mental condition that causes uncontrollable laughter, usually at highly inappropriate, not to mention creepy, times. I think we can rest reasonably assured that this Joker will not be appearing in any of those tedious and contrived super-hero/villain “universes.”

This exhaustive, macabre masterpiece was written and directed by Todd Phillips, better known for fluff pieces like The Hangover movies and Starsky and Hutch. The explosive final scene is so loaded with Hitchcockian tension that I wanted to flee the theater. That hasn’t happened since 1960, and the movie was Psycho.

The movie has received criticism for its pseudo-social commentary and its apparent sympathy toward a certain social class of losers known as “incel” (involuntarily celibate), with some people fretting that it could inspire violence. Like, more than John Wick or any number of today’s ultraviolent flicks? 

I predict a Best Actor Oscar.

Oct 4 (121 min)