Come what the naysayers may say, we are essentially living in the days where social awareness seems to be trickling into every strata and demographic. Some call them woke, and other term the movement a mere sign of a needful change. At the same time, this is also the very same nauseous era where it isn’t uncommon to see armed gunmen taking innocent lives for no apparent reason. That said, it takes balls of steel to make a super-villain origin story on this date. How would a writer – with his sanity in place – make one sympathize, let alone empathize, with a psychopath as wicked as the Joker? How would a well-informed viewer turn politically correct to distinguish art from what might be among the vilest acts on display?
Chronicling the origin of the much-loathed and highly amusing DC Comics villain Joker, filmmaker Tod Philips accomplishes the impossible. He manages to design an arc that is so meticulous – and I dare say, rousing – that it is impossible to be indifferent to it. We cannot overlook the abuse, negligence, heartbreaks and paucity that the protagonist Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) faces throughout his life. Yet, when it comes to commiserating with the movement that an action of his incites in Gotham city, we are nothing but polarized. Is terrorism the answer to even out mammoth civilian woes? With the filmmaker not offering sermons or take grounds in this direction, Joker becomes one of the most audacious feature films in the genre.
Having lived a life dealing with great degrees of insufficiency and lack of love, Arthur’s early life was no bed of roses. Perhaps in the absence of conventional family setup, he grows up to become a man who is constantly labelled as ‘weird’. This weirdness coupled with the innocent twinkle in the eyes fetches him a chance to be greeted by his idol – talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Seeking kindness from the more obvious quarters but in the most unexpected of times, Arthur is eventually heartbroken as he faces deceit from all – his mother, his idol, his employer et al. Whilst this is a very conventional (and safe) trajectory, Philips’ decision in choosing it prepares us for the more violent, remorseless scheme of affairs in the final act.
It was also impressive to see the filmmaker add fleeting dollops to Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and King of Comedy through his narrative. The cinematography, filled with low-angle shots, is the perfect add-on to the gradually mounting euphoria. Phoenix’s closeup shots, too, are composed with great care and not once does the camera or frame selection let its protagonist wither away to borders of frivolity. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s original score matches pace with the film’s hypnotic mood and perpetual din.
Joker is also not complete without addressing the character’s idiosyncrasies which Phoenix portrays with complete control, never losing balance on the tightrope of vulnerability and absolute lunacy. Being an Oscar-contender is one thing but the main highlight is in his ability to hold a frame for long intervals doing which he matches up to the gigantic standards set by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. De Niro, yet again, puts across a fantastic show essaying the funny yet manipulative Murray Franklin. Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother Penny Fleck is another intricately designed part and through her, the writers reflect various shades of the Joker’s eventual evolution.
Whilst I am in no agreement for vigilante justice, Joker, in all modesty sets the background up for where it is headed. Nothing comes out of context and lacking in nuance. There is no twist in the tale that is hackneyed or is meant to serve to an agenda. The idea here – as far as I could decipher – was not to incite violence to tackle disillusionment. Arthur, being the sociopath that he is, commits all the crimes with full knowledge of his actions. In a chilling instance, he brutally murders his ex-employer but allows the man who accompanied him to leave, thanking him for his kindness. In another scene, staged in a washroom, Arthur locks horns with his supposed father Thomas Wayne to whom he confesses how all he seeks is a little warmth. With the system wrecking his life further by ripping him off his medication and counsellor support, the character motivations stand justified.
To close it, I would not want to take a moral stand on how the Joker’s portrayal of vengeance can influence common man purely for the reason that Todd Philips’ film is no no-brainer. Will they root for this anti-hero who is more pitiful than powerful? Arthur is no megalomaniac. All he knows is of a world that has failed him miserably. He could – at best – be called the medium to a larger pandemonium in Gotham but in no way is the Joker a figure to idolize. As a matter of fact, he wouldn’t want to either. He would rather choose to laugh that uncontrollable laugh and do that dynamic dance in the middle of the road, all by himself.
Rating: ★★★ 1/2