Rating 4.5/5 Stars
Reinvention of a reinvention, the Joker is born again. Tom Hiddleston said about his character Loki in the MCU, ‘Every villain is a hero in his own mind’. What if, you step inside the mind of the greatest villains ever produced? Scar. A brother wronged, neglected, dealing with a facial deformity. Jafar, so frustrated with seeing incompetent people in power. The evil stepmother in Cinderella: having two daughters to bring up with an absentee husband. Everyone’s got the story, everyone’s got an angle.
Written by Todd Philips and Scott Silver, Joker is the genesis of the villain. Not necessarily told from the Joker’s eye alone, it is a sympathetic view of the rise of a villain. That said, no villain is created in a vacuum. There is plenty of controversy surrounding Joker, namely from those affected by gun violence. In 2012, an armed gunman shot hundreds of people, killing 12 and injuring over 80 people in a cinema as the audience was watching The Dark Knight Rises. Though there has been no definite connect established between violent films and gun violence, caution is still advised by many experts. Affectees had written to Warner Bros saying that this was ‘irresponsible filmmaking’.
No films are created in a vacuum either.
Premiering at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, Joker also won the Golden Lion, the event’s highest prize. Known for popular comedies such as Starsky and Hutch and the Hangover series, no one is laughing in Phillips’ current directorial feature. It is definitely not the most responsible film you’ll see in a while – especially if you hold in comparison recent features from Jordan Peele, which are creepy, monstrous and yet deliver a sound message about society and gender/race/class relationships.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a disturbed man who plays the clown for small time stores and events in the decaying city of Gotham. Bruce Wayne (who later becomes Batman in the mythology)’s father Thomas Wayne is all set to become the mayor of the city. There is a poor vs rich narrative that makes a subtle second layer in the film that doesn’t come to pass until the film’s climax. Fleck’s descent into madness begins with repeated bullying incidents and an encounter with a group of badly-behaved yet educated bullies. It’s compounded by a connection with Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) a late night tv show. Fleck lives with his mother, Penny Fleck, who is also mostly indisposed and Fleck is the one taking care of her.
Joker is a chilling story of what happens when a cruel society forsakes people with mental illnesses and hands them weapons to hurt themselves and others. The message is clear when Fleck commits shocking acts of violence but the film becomes slightly irresponsible when it doesn’t involve the humane element in the discourse at all. It’s the Joker’s abject brokenness versus pontification or already questionable characters dispensing watertight logic on what they have done and how they have done it. From this point of view, the relationship between Fleck and his mother is perhaps the most nuance and well-balanced angle in the film. In over 120 minutes, Fleck is seen as an outcast and later as a monster. His rise as a villain has little or no bearing of the gender and race politics when it comes to mass violence but an overwhelming reliance on class politics.
The genesis of the villain is going to be no walk in the park; Phillips vision as well as Phoenix’s incisively perceptive portrayal has raised the bar for future reinventions. It may also prove many wrong who have hailed the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker as one of the finest we have ever seen – Phoenix’s Joker is a cross between The Shining and De Niro’s Taxi Driver with an added level of creepiness that we may have never seen before.
Whether it’s the mad cackle or the eventual swagger, Phoenix is astoundingly perfect and the Oscar buzz that this portrayal is generating is well-merited. This is his best to date and perhaps one of the best performance you may have seen in recent years. The only performance that comes nearly as close is Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds – but that was a brief role. In Joker, Phoenix occupies most of the film and his gaunt, greying face occupies most of the frames in various scenes. Phillips creates a sad, brutal world and leaves the audience to question the origins of brutality. Could it have been told more responsibly? Sure. Could it have been shown or portrayed better when it comes to camerawork, cinematography and performance? Definitely not.
Watch the trailer here.