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Movie review: ‘Joker’: Bleak, violent, and powerful portrait of Gotham City’s most terrifying villain

Parents need to know that "Joker" is an intense, complex, powerful thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as the famous Batman villain. It's far darker and more violent than other takes on the character. Expect extremely graphic killings and blood spatters/sprays, guns/shooting, and stabbing. Several characters bully and beat up the main character, punching and kicking him, and there are scenes of fighting, rioting, rage, and shouting, as well as a scene of smothering with a pillow. There's brief nudity as the pages of a journal are flipped through, plus images and movie titles on adult theaters. The main character is shown with his hand down the front of his underwear, suggesting masturbation, and there's kissing. Language isn't constant but includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," etc. The main character takes prescription pills, and characters smoke frequently. The Joker isn't presented as a role model, but the movie does condemn those who do nothing to help the downtrodden get on their feet, which positions him as a somewhat sympathetic character. It also suggests that mental illness is one of the contributing factors to his villainous acts/behavior, which is troubling. The story disparages hate, anger, and unkindness, but it doesn't exactly promote kindness, love, or generosity.

WHAT'S THE STORY?

In "Joker," Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and works as a party clown in early 1980s Gotham City. He struggles with a mental illness that causes him to burst into sinister laughter at strange times. After he's attacked on the job and a co-worker gives him a gun, Arthur is fired. Later, he shoots and kills three wealthy jerks on a subway train and gets away. Then the city's social services programs are slashed, cutting off Arthur's weekly meetings and his supply of meds. He invites his neighbor, single mom Sophie (Zazie Beetz) to see his nightclub comedy act. The act is videotaped, and TV comedy show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) airs it, to unexpected response. Arthur is invited to be on Murray's show, but perhaps he's been pushed too far?

IS IT ANY GOOD?

Led by Phoenix's ferocious, feral performance, this especially dark, gritty comic book movie is a character drama that's drawn more toward real-world troubles than to capes and crusading. With "Joker," director Todd Phillips sets aside his penchant for juvenile comedies like "The Hangover" and channels early Martin Scorsese, especially "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy." The film rages at the human condition and the darkness that might break a person and turn them into a monster. Specifically, Phillips points fingers at the wealthy and powerful, who claim to want to help but make it impossible for the downtrodden to pick themselves up.

Phoenix embodies the utter despair of this situation, digging deep with a full-bodied performance, forever struggling to find hope but failing. Skeletal and dark-spirited, he moves his limbs like a balletic spider, either twining as if spinning a web or flailing and flapping like a manic cartoon character. But Batman's famous nemesis isn't just villainous any longer; he's a heartbreaking mistake that could have been prevented. It's no coincidence that "Joker" is set during a garbage strike, given that humans here are thrown to the curb just as easily as black plastic bags. In this very bleak movie, the bright colors of the Joker's clown makeup offer a violent, horrifying escape.

RATING AND CONTENT

Recommended for ages 16 and older

Quality: 4 out of 5

Positive messages: 2 out of 5

Positive role models: 0 out of 5

Violence: 5 out of 5

Sex: 3 out of 5

Language: 4 out of 5

Drinking, drugs, and smoking: 2 out of 5

Consumerism: 0 out of 5

MOVIE DETAILS

In theaters: October 4, 2019

Director: Todd Phillips

Studio: Warner Bros.

Genre: Thriller

Run time: 122 minutes

MPAA rating: R

Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.

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