Directed by Todd Philips
Written by Todd Philips and Scott Silver
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert DeNiro
You know your ‘positive’ thoughts are in a dilemma when the protagonist of the film you’re watching is the one of the most antagonistic characters of all time. And no, that’s certainly not what it implies; to think the Clown Prince of Crime is a twisted, albeit relatable anti-hero is a nightmare of its own. Yet, isn’t it an almost tragic sense of comfort; to think that there used to be a sane human behind every instrument of terror? Maybe he is just a victim of years of difficult circumstances, a vilified by-product of an increasingly toxic environment. And is this enough a reason for the madness that is born, or just an excuse?
Here’s the first and foremost thing you need to know before you read this review; this should NOT be read as a review, and this film should NOT be reviewed as a comic book movie. The way that Todd Philips has treated the source story is completely different. This is not a part of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe). It is a standalone film, truly. Because this film has done something no other film has accomplished, at least to this extent. The rule of thumb for any good story is to subvert expectations. And when you witness just how subtly the tables get turned in this fight of good versus evil (or is it?), you’ll know you’re in for a manic ride.
However, it doesn’t sound right to label Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as a maniac. After all, he does gigs as a clown to support his ailing mother while also pursuing a career in stand-up comedy and the love of his life. Seems like the typical poor guy protagonist’s backstory, right?
The film starts out with a lot of subtle set points that describe his predicament. A couple of boys steal his board during a gig and Arthur runs after them as if his livelihood depends on it. When they beat him up, he resigns himself to the torture instead of even trying to fight back. Scum of Gotham City – 1, clown under medication – 0.
Arthur and his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) tune in to the Murray Franklin show, starring the famous stand-up comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and his wide array of guests that get featured on his show. Arthur has the utmost respect for Murray and it’s his lifelong dream to appear as a guest on his show. Basically, Murray is the best depiction of how Arthur wants his future to look like. The Murray Franklin Show – 2, dreamy-eyed clown – 0
Yet his own mother doesn’t believe he has what it takes. She keeps telling her son to check the mailbox for a response from Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Gotham’s very own white knight, who was her employer. And the kind, wealthy Mr Wayne is definitely better to rely on compared to her frail and failing comedian son, right? Penny Fleck – 3, clown that ain’t funny – 0.
Arthur’s situation is much direr than it seems at the surface level. His remaining sanity is slowly being pulled apart from all sides. There’s only a bit left for it to snap. With little anecdotes of his suffering dotted throughout his story, his metamorphosis into the cold-blooded killer feels much more engaging. Yet, the first time he starts his descent into the chaos of reality is not about him finally losing control over himself, and more about how he finally starts taking control over his life.
But it isn’t just one exact moment that propels him to this change. That’s what Todd wants us to understand; the accumulation of this madness is a slow process, and there are a LOT of factors that influence this.
The entire story of Joker is structured to be so that Arthur cannot help but go against the system because that’s how rotten it had become. Here, the system might be the biggest villain ever, for festering all the negative thoughts Arthur couldn’t drive away. From some random street boys mugging him to a therapist who doesn’t even listen to his troubles, from beating him up to firing him, Arthur is getting frustrated. And more than the insults and the beatings he takes, it’s the indifference that he just can’t take anymore.
And that’s not just him. Almost the entire city of Gotham is going through more or less of the same, just not up to his extent. Except that here, almost the entire city of Gotham is also instrumental in breaking Arthur Fleck. So it’s more of a paradox than anything else, a vicious cycle wherein the ‘clowns’ of Gotham City are contributing to the chaos and yet perceiving it as a situation that’s out of control. And yes, Arthur’s actions make such a big impact on them. They end up noticing him only when he starts fighting the system. From being a nobody, he unintentionally becomes the figurehead of a movement he had no idea would exist. The clowns of Gotham City are a representation of the common people, tired of the eternal struggle of their lives. At the same time, they’re also responsible for the garbage they’ve been complaining about.
Todd’s use of the camera recreates the 80s looks of film with the exclusive use of colour and tone, along with the use of a flat aspect ratio. All things considered, he wanted to give that immersive feel for the film, a particular depth of view and a certain kind of perspective, reminiscent of films such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (and incidentally both are films made by Martin Scorsese). Every single camera movement and frame contributes to the storytelling, and every single element in the film works in harmony to tell the story of a man born into suffering, and how he liberates himself.
Joaquin Phoenix breathes life into this character like never before. There’s a certain audacity to him, a drive, that makes him outdo himself in the performance of a lifetime. Not fair to compare talents, but Phoenix aced it in a completely different hole. He did something much more impossible than the rest of them; he gave the Joker a little more human, and a little less evil. At the same time, the same amount of psycho.
Through Phoenix, we realise that the Joker does not represent an alter-ego for Arthur Fleck. He’s a state of being, Arthur at a moment in time when he cannot take the pain anymore. A time when he chooses to embrace the darkness because it’s a hell lot easier than fighting it. Clown Prince of Crime – 4, scum of Gotham City – K.O.
Arthur’s life was a tragedy. So the Joker decides to get him the last laugh.
Written by Sanjay Kumar
Images from Google, and various websites.