*ing: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
Directed by Todd Phillips
Joaquin Phoenix is, without question, rightfully creating Oscar buzz for his performance in Todd Phillips’ Joker. The standing ovation(s) following him at premieres don’t do enough justice to the performance he has pulled off. He is the first actor to surpass the terrifying clown Heath Ledger played in DC Comics universe’s The Dark Knight. This is Phoenix (Her, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love), at his bloody best.
Jared Leto in Suicide Squad as Joker – the last DC film featuring a Joker – was irritating at best and paled in comparison and Jack Nicholson – an iconic actor in his own right – has nothing on Phoenix or the late Heath Ledger when it comes to this particular comic book antihero character.
Ledger’s Joker was in clown get-up in The Dark Knight and committed crimes while saying, “Why so serious, Sunny…” with loyalty to absolutely no one, not even criminals. He created a situation where Batman ultimately took the fall for the actions of Harvey Dent/Two-Faced villain.
Ledger’s Joker was suicidal and longed to take Batman down with him and behaved in ways that even criminals were afraid of him; it created no moments of empathy for Joker and you rooted for the caped crusader to save the day – even as you marveled at Ledger’s gravitas purely as an actor.
Make room for some more gravitas with Joaquin Phoenix.
The story of this Joker is so very dissimilar and mind-bending. There is no Batman yet. He is a young boy. Thomas Wayne, his father, wants to run for the office of the Mayor of Gotham and is as loaded as he is privileged. But, he also carries an unseen banner of entitlement, a fatal flaw that ultimately leads to his murder (along with the Mrs.) and as we’ve come to learn been the trauma that gave rise to Batman (not in this film).
But, this is not a black and white film with Joker emerging as a foolish antagonist and Batman as the savior of Gotham city, which is both rotten and rotting to the core. It is about social divisions, mistreatment at the hands of society his whole adult life, class inequality, race and identity and an evolution of superhero genre into utter darkness. Take that, Lex Luthor.
This antihero, Arthur Fleck, is on mental illness medication because there is something wrong with him; he carries a card that says he has a neurological condition because of which there is an inability to stop laughing even when he wants to. But cruelty finds him everywhere.
To make matters worse, his meds get cut off when the city cuts the funding. Gotham is in ruins. And the ones who feel it the most are the poorest. This is where and how Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker slowly takes shape from a comic to a murderous clown who has no one to save him from himself.
Arthur Fleck/Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn’t set out to be the ultimate prince of crime in any form, particularly as a clown. His physique is downright dangerous and he is too scrawny for his own good. But the battered Arthur never could have predicted that committing three murders on a subway in clown get-up after being heckled by three Wall Street guys would make people talk about him and make him a symbol of resisting a broken system. That is perhaps the biggest paradox in the film. He sets out to be a comic and to make people laugh and be good at it but ends up being the wrong kind of symbol.
Joker, a psychological thriller, provides an original backstory to the birth of the villainous clown even as it explores his mental psyche, and within the film we spend some time with the man behind the clown get-up and learn what leads to his complete transformation from a deeply disturbed man to a murderer who embraces criminality without shame.
Arthur Fleck, who lives with mother, yearns to go to Murray’s (Robert De Niro) TV show, and essentially works to be a comic and continues with the notion that he was put on earth to make people smile and spread joy, fed to him by his mother. He takes care of her as best as he can – while seeing a psychiatrist – who is open to medicating him but doesn’t really listen.
“All I have are negative thoughts,” he tells her, before reminding her that she asks the same questions every week and doesn’t really listen. He feels he doesn’t exist.
Losing 50 pounds for the role, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur develops a strange, almost maniacal and unique laughter for the film and a dance that he does by himself – time and again. The laughter is terrifying and his dance is exquisite even as you know what’s coming. Arthur’s laughter in the face of everything and nothing is the result of a neurological condition, brought on by physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather and mother (who lied to him about everything and whom he cared for right up until the moment he finds out the truth).
This is where Arthur Fleck is reborn as The Joker, as he asks Murray (Robert De Niro), a Stephen Colbert-esque daily show host behind the scenes to introduce him as. Murray had found a video of him performing at a comedy club where he is terrible because he cannot stop laughing. And he tells Murray that he was invited to the show so he could be made fun of, before, of course, shooting him.
Unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker, always thriving on chaos – who received an Oscar posthumously for his performance in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight – we see Arthur – without make-up – and therefore first as an ordinary man, heckled, beaten, abused, struggling to make ends meet in the burning Gotham where the gap between privileged and the underprivileged is too high as is the ratio of criminals. He longs to be accepted.
The thing that is so chilling and one that has started a debate about whether this film glorifies violence or depicts mental illness in a poor light and the reason why FBI was employed at premieres of the film is because it is all too likely. It is the makings of a madman who has a penchant for public violence. And yes, even as he commits crimes, there is a level of empathy you develop for Arthur Fleck.
In the United States where gun deaths remain a serious issue, that question maybe asked. Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight attracted a young man into shooting up a cinema. But this film is less about school shootings; it is more about a poor mental state, a broken dream of a broken man, a broken system and betrayal at the hands of parents – all of which contributed to the birth of this Joker. His trauma, in a sense, is much worse than Bruce Wayne. But the ending sends out a message. The Joker doesn’t get away. He ends up in Arkham Asylum once again, only this time he’s armed with the complete truth and there is a deep sadness to that.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection