By: Sandru Narayanan
Director Phillips’ diluted and confused message is vastly overshadowed by an outstanding performance by Phoenix
Hurt people, hurt people. This tale, as old as time, forms one of two overarching themes in Joker, that kicks off DC’s Black series, standalone features non-canon to the original DC Universe. Though Batman has been around for 80 years, Joker made his first appearance simply a year after the caped crusader crashed into collective pop culture. But every adaptation — animated, feature or small screen — has featured the villain with varying and often disparate, origin stories. The 2019 Todd Phillips attempt, for the first time, dedicates an intense character study to the super villain, made famous by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008).
Relayed over two hours, Joker chronicles the rise of the green-haired snarl-faced psychopath with an insatiable appetite for destruction. Set in decrepit Gotham, the film focuses on the life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a wannabe stand-up comedian who’s never felt a moment of happiness in his entire life. His days are marred with struggles as a clown for hire, caring for his ailing mother and receiving blow after blow, literally from the callous and cruel.
Director Phillips works with a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, using a decaying society as a metaphor for the times we live in. The rich stomp on the dreams of the poor, while those particularly vulnerable, like the mentally ill, continue to be neglected and eventually plummet over the edge of sanity. True though the allegory may be, Phillips plea to sympathize with a straight white man’s collapse to crime is stretched. It’s a dangerous fine line when the result is the violent rallying of the disenfranchised. The director’s incessant desire to elicit pity for a character so abused eventually implodes on itself. Instead, its echoes all those times criminals have snatched the lives of the innocent as an outlet to their outrage.
Joker’s morality is highly questionable, but the film’s best is Phoenix. If Ledger gave life to the maddening violence of the character, an emaciated Phoenix in Joker, gives the villain a humanity we never thought possible. His transformation from misunderstood to murderous abandon is sublime. The yearning of dreams fulfilled and a parent who never was, is seen in every sincere hopeful smile. Equally evident is the distinct shift in his perception to becoming reckless. It’s with the actor that Phillips exhibits brilliant sleight of hand, never crossing over to indulgence. Better yet is the director’s construction of Gotham, crafting an atmosphere of grim despondency. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is visually stunning, luring a viewer into the fictional city. Drawing cues from Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) — featuring Robert Di Nero as a mentally unstable comedian — Phillips’ use of tragic humour hits home immediately. Even the film’s music deserves a special mention, whose incongruence would never make important moments as impactful: from Frank Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’ to Cream’s ‘White Room’ and Gary Glitter’s ‘Hey Song’.
Phillips probably intended Joker’s social commentary to leave audiences with a lasting impression. Thankfully, its diluted and confused message is vastly overshadowed by an outstanding performance by Phoenix.
Verdict: 4/5 (Led by Phoenix’s ferocious & feral performance)