Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown working for Ha Ha’s and an aspiring stand-up comedian. He is hired to perform at children’s hospitals and twirl advertising signs on the sidewalks of Gotham City. It is there that his sign is stolen by teen thugs and after giving chase through the streets, he is jumped in an alley and beaten. And so “Joker” begins.

To understand Arthur’s metamorphosis, one must also understand the conditions in Gotham City. The city is in chaos and filled with rising crime, unemployment and mass poverty. The streets are bulging with mounds of uncollected garbage due to a worker’s strike and there is an undercurrent of unrest among the poor and struggling and an unnoticing among the rich and privileged. When Arthur goes to his social worker for counseling and to get his seven anti-psychotic and depression medications, he is told that the program has been cut and nothing more can be done for him. He can only laugh in his strange wail of a laugh. Is he laughing or crying out in desperation?

Returning home to care for his sick mother (Frances Conroy), they watch a popular evening talk show starring Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Arthur daydreams that he has gone to the show and that Murray has picked him out of the audience and encouraged his dream of being a comedian. His mother explains that she has written another letter to her former employer, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) asking him for help during their financial crisis.

Although teased and belittled by his co-workers and yelled at undeservedly by his boss, Arthur is given a gun for protection by fellow clown Randall (Glenn Fleshler ) after he hears of Arthur’s mugging by the gang. Arthur returns home and sees his single-mother neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), on whom he has a crush. They speak briefly in the elevator and he invites her to see his stand-up at open mic night at a local club.

At the comedy club, Arthur is so nervous that he laughs uncontrollably, and its heinous nature and his awful jokes don’t go over well. In his failure, Arthur thinks he sees Sophie applauding for him in support. His downward spiral continues as while riding home on the subway in his clown makeup from a job, he is bullied and ultimately beat down by three drunk, young Wall Street types. Laughing as they beat him, Arthur pulls his gun and empties the clip into them. He exits the train and walks calmly up out of the subway and dances into the streets. His psychotic break is complete and the Joker has been released.

What follows is anarchy in the streets, rioting and looting by the protesting citizens of Gotham, some in clown makeup, that look at the murders as getting even with the wealthy for all their troubles. Throughout, however, there are quiet moments when we see the Joker watching, calculating and then reacting. The Joker becomes an avenging hero to right all the wrongs perpetrated on Arthur, and the masses begin applauding and cheering his actions as he becomes their symbol for changing the system that has oppressed them.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it is also hard to take your eyes off the screen. This is the first time we see the backstory of the Joker character on the big screen. It is not the cartoon characterization in the TV “Batman” series of the ‘60s or even the Jack Nicholson Joker of the 1989 Tim Burton-directed “Batman.” There were moments that I saw glimpses of a young Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” – troubled, alienated and disturbed. Joaquin Phoenix and writer-director Todd Phillips take us to a very dark place both in terms of cinematography and characterization. Phoenix lost over 50 pounds and transformed himself into an almost skeletal form; demoniacally frail. Most of the violence by the Joker is unseen but heard. His evil and insanity is implied through his bizarre behavior, delusional episodes, heinous laughter and erratic dancing. The audience is taken on a psychological journey into madness that uses our own fears and anxieties to build an atmosphere of dread as the story unfolds. Not for the faint of heart, but a definite go-see.

“Joker” and Joaquin Phoenix will certainly be mentioned during this year’s awards season.  

“Joker” is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.