Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro
Director: Todd Phillips
There are spoilers ahead.
“I am waiting for the punchline,” says TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) to his unusual guest, who insists to be called Joker (Joaquin Phoenix). To which, Joker simply shrugs and replies, “It’s not a joke.”
A possible murder scene was just described on Murray’s late night show!
We might know the clown sitting in front of us hereafter, but he isn’t the Joker yet. This is his origin story which tries to justify Joker’s inner violence with most obvious answers. Had there not been a terrific actor at the helm of affairs, these reasons might have crossed us unnoticed.
But then there is Phoenix who literally bares it all, and puts on a display a show where nobody else could be the winner. It’s such a unidirectional narrative that, at no point, you would find anybody else presenting a challenge to Arthur’s character graph. He is bound to be a hero.
Gotham is burning and the omnipresent divide between the rich and the poor couldn’t be more prominent. It’s a valid set-up for the settling down of a violent social norm. Joker’s gradual leaning towards violence seems like natural progression. You are taken to dark, dingy rooms where handheld camera doesn’t let you look beyond prescribed limits. You don’t even know how these apartments would appear if there’s enough light.
Then there are metro trains, dwarfed by skyscrapers, crawling right in the middle of the city against the setting sun.
And it’s just not inside claustrophobic spaces. Even when Arthur is doing his happy dance, though he claims he has never been happy in his life, outside subways or on the pavement, melancholy grips you from all sides. Director Todd Phillips collaborates with Hildur Guðnadóttir for one of the most amazing soundtracks of recent years. His music and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography perfectly complement the transformation of an aspiring stand-up comedian to a frightening psychopath.
Phillips has borrowed from many neo-noir Hollywood films and has used a similar time frame for Joker. It works mood-wise but it’s a one man show who is battling on many fronts—a delusional mother, tough work place and an overall cruel surrounding. All the makings of an oversimplified film.
The problem arises when Arthur decides to turn his life upside down by inflicting violence. It’s inane. It may suit the comic book narration but on screen, it’s nothing more than a forced ploy to present Joker as a gun-trotting crusader for the poor.
It’s not a new thing for Hollywood though. They have mostly put a weapon in the hands of the so called champions of the downtrodden. What they don’t realise is that it puts Joker in direct conflict with the idea of a rebellion.
This is not a revolution for Arthur, as he suggests in the film, so he can’t technically claim the leadership of the mob justice. All he could be seen as is a mindless killer looking for some validation. But the director wants him to be seen as the person initiating the change.
Thanks to Phoenix’s excellent performance, it doesn’t reduce to a mad man’s indomitable spirit to kill. Was there really a need to present Joker as a man who should walk the talk? Remember what Heath Ledger’s Joker said: Do I really look like a man with a plan? Wasn’t that the best part about him?
Having said that, Phoenix is one person standing tall amidst all the chaos and totally determined to make Joker an enjoyable ride. It’s his show and a possible ticket to the Oscar podium.