“Joker” is the improbable convergence of a character study, comic book, and exploitation film.  Depending on which of those genres you choose to judge it, the movie either soars or stumbles.  The one constant is Joaquin Phoenix‘s enthralling performance.

The movie takes place in Gotham City during the year 1981.  Gotham City is suffering an economic collapse, and an ongoing city services strike has left the streets lined with mounds of trash.  Employment has become so scarce that even being a sign-spinning clown is a coveted job.  Arthur Fleck ( Joaquin Phoenix) is one of these clowns.  He’s trying hard to be a good person, friendly to others, and thankful for his job.  Unfortunately, it seems as if the world is against him.  Not only is he incredibly unlucky, but he’s also extremely socially awkward.  When he can’t handle the stress of a situation, Fleck begins to compulsively laugh.  At times he pulls a worn card out of his pocket that explains his neurological disorder.  It’s a credit to Phoenix that these outbursts don’t seem silly, but instead, are harrowing to watch.

The plot proceeds more or less as one would expect, similar to a gritty art-house version of 1993’s “Falling Down.”  We know that things will continue to slide downhill for the main character, and we know that eventually, he will snap.  Like many things, the journey is far more interesting than the destination.  Even though “Joker” exists separately from the various Batman legends, it still pulls from and references many of them.  Fleck’s attempt at stand up comedy is taken from “The Killing Joke.”  A Social Services worker, Debra Kane, is lifted from the 1995 novel  “Batman:The Ultimate Evil” by Andrew Vachss.  There are a few other surprises that pop up which put an interesting spin on the familiar bat-lore.

At first glance, the movie appears to have a lot to say about current social issues.  Tension and animosity between the 1% and the lower class play a major role in the plot.  The shortcomings of our healthcare system and the stigma attached to mental illness are other obvious elements.  At one point Fleck writes in his journal, “The worst thing about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave like you don’t.”  A later outburst regarding gun laws and violence is jarring at first but almost too on-the-nose.  Each of these issues has key sentences that simplify and gloss over the subject.  The spoken dialog feels more like media soundbites than a character speaking.  That’s when it hit me.  This is a modern exploitation film.  The subjects it’s “addressing” are merely there to titillate and move the story forward.  The film itself isn’t actually making a commentary or offering solutions to anything.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is a near-masterpiece.  The gold-teal color scheme that is almost cliche these days has been mutated to a dirty-mustard color.  It’s amazing how scenes pop visually while retaining their grunge and grime.  Even though the film takes place in the early 80’s, all of the lower class characters are still dressing in or using things from the mid to late 70s.  Tension continues to build throughout the movie, aided by a very effective (manipulative?) soundtrack.  Late in the film, we even begin to question the reliability of what we are experiencing.  Is everything we see real, or are we viewing everything through the eyes of a madman?  Is what we are watching even in order?

As a comic book movie, “Joker” adds very little to the lore.  Even if it did, as a standalone film, it’s not considered canon.  But if judged as a character study, it becomes a much more fascinating movie.  Like “Taxi Driver,”  this movie weaves a dark tale about a fascinating character that is elevated because of the film-craft employed.