Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
In an era punch-drunk with grey shades and villainous heroes, it was only a matter of time before moral discourse was hijacked by the idea of a heroic villain. What’s perhaps more symptomatic of the times we live in is that writers don’t feel the duty to distinguish between the two anymore. And this, in some perverse way, adds to the experience. It adds to the jarring ambiguity of occupying a divisive universe where good and bad – just like comedy and tragedy – have become subjective constructs. It’s not entirely incidental then that the maker of maniacally masculine comedies like The Hangover series, Road Trip and Old School has now adopted the story of a broken man who concludes that there’s nothing funnier than a tragedy. For much of the film, it’s impossible to tell his tears from his laughter.
Everything that Todd Phillips’ Joker is being both demonized and adored for – its beautiful bleakness and boisterous bareness – is a reflex response to the world at large. It is crazier because the world is crazy; it is violent because the world is noisy. One might argue that this mirrors the origins of Joaquin Phoenix’s storied character: A man moulded into a monster by urban isolation and societal neglect. Or even the origins of a clown: A happy symbol offered as an artificial antidote to gloom. But the movie, too, is obsessed with what has already happened, especially in the manner it designs Arthur Fleck – a King-of-Comedy-marries-Taxi-Driver protagonist who could just as well double up as the modern portrait of a deranged mass shooter – precisely to provoke us and then revel in the victory of our displeasure. It fixates on the fact that Fleck’s idol is a talk-show host played by Robert De Niro. It overstates America’s chaotic environment – characterized by an obscenely wealthy man who, with his superficial litany of class-deaf speeches, runs for mayor.
Often sensationally, often painstakingly, Joker is in a constant search for newer and neurotic ways to retell a familiar tale
Joker is a wholly reactive spin-off, not just politically (you laugh at someone till shit gets serious and the masses anoint him Leader of the Free World) but also cinematically. The gaze is almost artfully unoriginal, in how Joker (directed by Phillips, co-produced by Bradley Cooper) tries to performatively decorate the ultra-basic wronged-loner narrative the same way A Star Is Born (directed by Cooper, co-produced by Phillips) treats the ultra-basic alcoholic-lover narrative. On another day, if I didn’t have to sound as pensive as the film I’m writing about, I’d even float the notion of rechristening Joker as A Scar Is Born. In short, the emotional politics are almost simplistic, with interest placed on form and feeling. The film is aware of just how many times this rage-to-itches arc has been exploited on screen. It is also aware of the stylistic trappings of the DC Darkness Movie ™. As a result, one might sense – often sensationally, often painstakingly – that Joker is in a constant search for newer and neurotic ways to retell a familiar tale.
So in defiance of identity-concealing superhuman masks, you see Lawrence Sher’s camera hover uncomfortably close to Phoenix’s naked face. His crooked grin, his damp cigarettes. In defiance of the sunless Gotham, we see a persona-defining shot of Fleck climbing an endless staircase connecting two levels of the city – sad when he’s going up, mad when he’s coming down. In defiance of the protagonist’s crowded mindscape, you hear a nervy score by a composer from the vast emptiness of Iceland; it of course helps that Hildur Guðnadóttir has other solo-mentalist journeys like Sicario, The Revenant and Arrival to her credit. In defiance of the toned, ripped torsos we usually associate with ‘comic-book’ characters, the camera lurks menacingly over his diseased, ribbed body and zombie-like gait. There are details you even imagine: His painfully hollow chest cavity heaves to reveal an uncanny silhouette of a long-haired face carved into his tummy; his saliva-ridden lips reveal a hunger rooted in his head. In defiance of the conversational hero-villain faceoff and dramatic visual epiphanies, we instead hear the solitude of Fleck’s mind – he laughs uncontrollably when stressed, he dances to invisible tunes and flexes his limbs like a deformed trapeze artist after committing crimes.
The twitches and tantrums start to feel like placeholders for a script that seems to be rewriting itself to weaponize its actor’s talent
Entire scenes play out with Phoenix, alone on screen, parading the creative infinity of insanity. Mental illness is used as a narrative device to fetishize this rebelliously physical tone – it allows the film to justify the crutch of his relentless body-acting, the awkward flashbacks, the flickering-light set pieces. When you’re clinically crazy, there’s no definitive behavioral pattern; you can, literally, get away with murder. Joker exploits this to the hilt and back. Fleck does anything, anytime, unrestrained by the norms of civility and storytelling, and it mostly tends to come across as auteur-level method filmmaking.
But the line between natural mythbuilding and unnatural gimmickry is a thin one. At some point, you sense that the movie is resorting to – and hence, inventing – Fleck’s condition because it runs out of psychological currency. The twitches and tantrums start to feel like placeholders for a script that seems to be rewriting itself to weaponize its actor’s talent. The result is only accidentally haunting, almost as if each beat is chosen only on the basis of how incendiary a particular action might look on the day. It is so enthralled by Joaquin Phoenix’s inbuilt kookiness that the Joker merely becomes a sociopathic extension of his personality. He may have been born to play this role, but Phillips doesn’t quite let the role play him.
The anything-goes free-styling of the movie reclaims the wall separating fact and fiction, edginess and hyper-realism, delusion and disillusionment…tragedy and comedy
It’s counter-productive to compare Fleck to Heath Ledger’s agenda-less madman in The Dark Knight, but Phoenix’s over-the-top-ness feels like more of a Trump-era metaphor than a subversive Batman detour. Joker finds its voice when the two fleetingly merge, in a thrilling culmination of chaos. It’s a derivative voice: a mixtape of all the cackles and cries of Hollywood’s most infamous psychopaths. But by then, the anything-goes free-styling of the movie reclaims the wall separating fact and fiction, edginess and hyper-realism, delusion and disillusionment…tragedy and comedy. After all, a clown might be the loudest manifestation of comedy, but there’s nothing sadder than a vocation born solely from the need to lift spirits. Which is why Joker, with all its daring dualities, is a testament to the fact that even though wall-building might be a traditional act of hostility for this world, cinema is all the richer for the same.