Director Todd Phillips’ Joker is disturbing, nerve-wracking but an emotionally gripping, psychological drama
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Di Niro
How does one make an eight-decade old character relevant? DC Comics’ Joker remains one of the most iconic villains both in pop culture and the celluloid. Every actor who has played or voiced for the Joker, had brough a certain individuality to the character. However, largely the filmmakers have shown Joker to be this psychopath who loves destruction. A dreaded evil that can only be contained by the righteous superhero Batman, who’d capture but never kill his enemies.
Noir lovers took dearly to the crazy Joker, some even deriving sadistic pleasure in his madness. Joker’s method to madness has evolved through each decade but seldom has any filmmaker looked at Joker in a humane way. Though unimaginable, but never before has the Joker evoked a sense of empathy.
Director Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) turns the history of Joker and Gotham on its head. This joker is anything but the one created by the late trio of Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson [creators of Batman franchise].
Phillips’ Joker is Arthur Fleck [Joaquin Phoenix] a wiry, lonely, depressed clown struggling to understand his worth in life. The wiry Fleck is bullied at work and often heckled by rowdy teens. He dreams of being a stand-up comedian, but his job largely sees him amuse kids at hospitals. Whenever bullied or humiliated, Arthur would break into a giggly laughter. He carries a note, written by his mother, that defends his giggle as a medical condition.
His pills, counselling is of no help for the negativity only keeps piling. Eventually, the constant physical, emotional battering leads Fleck on the path of chaos.
Phillips offers an emotionally disturbing yet a refreshing portrayal of the Joker. Given his physical and emotional struggles, one can’t help but empathise with Fleck. This empathy is no justification for his gruesome actions, but Fleck’s condition reminds us that no one is born criminal.
Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver throw a history that’s build on pain, trauma, but it also questions the legacy of Thomas Wayne [the Gotham billionaire and father of Bruce Wayne, who goes on to become Batman]. Phillips also paints a different picture of Wayne’s [Brett Cullen] buttler Alfred Pennyworhy [Douglas Hodge].
This ‘no-one-is-born-criminal’ saying shifts the focus on the Gotham society. A society where the ‘righteous privileged’ citizens have their morality questioned. Phillips’ Gotham is reflective of a capitalist democracy, where the widening gap between the rich and the poor threatens civil unrest.
Arthur Fleck though never harboured any million-dollar dream. To him, as ingrained by his ailing mother Penny Fleck [Frances Conroy], he was born to bring a smile on the face of the world. He longs to be a fine stand-up comedian like his idol Murray Franklin [Robert Di Niro], a popular comedian and talk show host. His two meetings with Franklin end on contrasting notes.
Sadly, for Fleck, often his attempts to bring a smile on the faces of kids sees him being reprimanded by a mother warning to leave her child alone. Ironically, his mother wants Arthur to sport a smile forever, but it breaks his soul when the same mother says, “Arthur, you are not funny”. That was the moment where it killed his dream. Later, the shocking [perhaps contentious] revelations about his mother and his past, only plunges Arthur into despair. It’s in nadir that Arthur Fleck discovers the path to zenith. The bullied is about to turn the tables on his bullies.
An Arthur Fleck finds resonance with the billions of people who are oppressed and dragged down by opportunistic people who judge you by their dogmatism. Fleck’s miseries and his actions busts Gotham’s misplaced sense of morality triggering a dangerous catharsis among the oppressed. Chaos to cure chaos. Unacceptable in an ideal world, but Gotham’s oppressed find their voice in Joker’s bloody reprisal.
Unlike Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson’s original creation, Phillips’ Joker hasn’t fallen into any chemical pool, but he proudly sports the green hair, red and white face. The colors don’t mask his actions, but it’s in these shades that Arthur Fleck discover his true identity. Also, the Joker has an affection for his neighbour Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz).
For a guy who has thrived in penning edgy comedies like Borat (2006), The Hangover franchise [written and directed], Phillips succeeds in creating an emotionally gripping psychological crime drama. Crime is only a little part of it, for Phillips’ Joker hits your psyche. The film’s final scene where Arthur is being counselled by his psychiatrist at a mental asylum raises questions over what really transpired before? Is Arthur’s reprisal a truth or a delusion? His mother suffered from delusion disorder. Has Arthur, too, gone the same way? Joker leaves with you more questions than answers.
Filmmakers often resort to conventional more entertaining ways of depicting pop culture in films. Phillips’ Joker has no sinister plans, no high- tech artillery or Adrenalin pumping action, but Phillips has resorted to art house to tell this pop culture story.
The immersive screenplay boils down to the exemplary writing by Phillips. It’s backed by a fine performance by its cast and the deathly background score, in particularly, the Joker theme ‘Call Me Joker’ by Hildur Guðnadóttir that sends a chill down your spine. Hans Zimmer’s Why So Serious? from The Dark Knight (2005) was more riveting, it drilled into your senses. Guðnadóttir’s Call Me Joker has a sense of sadness, pain, yet it evokes a fear of the impending doom.
Many rate Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Joker as the finest and perhaps impossible to match. Joaquin Phoenix, though, doesn’t fall to any such temptation. In fact, he’s successfully creates a new Joker that will perhaps be equally cherished as the psychotic, chaotic Ledger in The Dark Knight .
As we saw in Gladiator (2000) and later in Her (2013), Joaquin Phoenix excels in playing lonely, depressive characters. This despair is pushed to the edge in Joker. It is disturbing but emotionally gripping. Some would question whether Arthur’s antipathy story is being used to justify his homicidal behaviour?
What cannot be taken away is Phoenix’s commitment – both mental and physical. He lost 52 pounds to get into Arthur’s malnourished state. The weight loss came in handy to pull off the creepy dance in his restroom. Apparently, the dance was not part of the script, but Phillips made Phoenix listen to a piece from Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Call Me joker soundtrack, and the actor just broke into this creepy dance. Phoenix’s brilliant in his dance and overall act. Heath Ledger’s legacy is preserved, but Phoenix has created his own Joker.
Todd Phillips’ Joker goes against the DC lore. It threatens to taint reputation. Arthur’s acts will create a debate – did he or didn’t he? After two hours, you are left gasping for more. Todd Phillips has shot down any plans for a sequel, but DC Universe fans would still be debating about a probable missing puzzle in Phillips’ near masterpiece.