Phoenix brings depth to compelling spiral in ‘Joker‘

Many of the best actors and actresses have mailed it in at least a couple times, but Joaquin Phoenix can never be accused of putting forth anything less than his absolute best.

His latest finds him better than ever playing the titular role in Todd Phillips’ “Joker.”

After Heath Ledger’s masterful turn as Batman’s mortal enemy in “Dark Knight,” one might wonder why anyone would attempt to play the role again. Did anyone see Jared Leto in “Suicide Squad”? Ugh.

Phoenix, however, puts a new spin on the character. Ledger played Joker as an unhinged, morally corrupt leader of criminal sycophants. Phoenix portrays a disturbed, sad sack of a man.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a sign-spinning clown in his late 30s who still lives with (and bathes) his mother. Frances Conroy is perfectly pathetic as Penny Fleck. So obsessed with getting financial help from her well-off former employer, Penny completely misses the signs that her son has turned into a brutal murderer. The scenes between the two of them are (mostly) tender reminders of what used to be a healthy, loving relationship.

Phillips’ Gotham, like most recreations of the fabled city, is a run-down, poorly managed place where the less fortunate are not only spat on, but often beaten senseless. It is after Arthur’s early thumping by young ruffians that things begin to go awry. Loss of impulse control becomes a positive when he boldly begins talking to his cute neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and a negative when murder becomes a natural reaction.

Arthur suffers from an uncontrollable cackle, something his mom always said was a medical problem. I found myself chuckling early on during scenes when Arthur could not stop laughing. However, I eventually felt sorry for him; Phoenix got me to care about this scoundrel’s feelings.

The film seems to take place in a version of the early 1980s; musical choices from the era fit the mood. Composer Hildur Guonadottir, who provided scary atmosphere with her score on the recent “Chernobyl” mini-series, mixes a traditional score with eerie sounds to perfection here.

Arthur and Penny compulsively watch “Live with Murray Franklin” every night. Robert De Niro pops up as the Leno-esque TV talk show host enthralling the masses of Gotham. Watching Franklin is one of Arthur’s few remaining pleasures as his world crumbles. Arthur becomes a minor celebrity of sorts, leading Franklin to feature a story on him. But Arthur does not want fame or cult status. He just wants to be treated equally, and for the town to treat those like him with dignity.

Phillips weaves some of the Batman mythos into the film, but it never overwhelms. It simply allows the audience to find context for where “Joker” takes place in the legacy.

The director hinted that “Joker” would be a one-off and not the start of a trilogy. Here’s to hoping he changes his mind; there is plenty of great story left to tell. A-

Jeff Mellinger is a screen writer and film buff. He holds a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in film production. Send email comments to ­