“Is it just me or it is getting crazier out there?” In 2008’s The Dark Knight, Joker (late Heath Ledger) says, “As you know, madness is like gravity…all it takes is a little push.” However, in Todd Phillips’s Joker that releases this week, madness is like vapor, not confined to one space – it encompasses all. Joker is a DC Comics spin-off that doesn’t need a Batman this time – he is an accidental antihero!
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) breaks into uncontrollable laughter when he is nervous or upset; it rattles his body, forcing him to carry a medical card which reads, “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition.” But society turns a blind eye to someone like him whose suffering isn’t visible.
The film opens with Joker aka Arthur walking out of a correctional home into a city which is in the dumps. There are garbage bags all around, metaphorically representing the grim state of affairs in Gotham. He struggles to work as a clown by the day and a stand-up comic by night but fails at both miserably. Arthur writes jokes in a notebook filled with scribbled-on pornography. He lives in a cramped, dimly-lit apartment with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and is a dutiful son to his mom who addresses him as ‘Happy’ – and emotion that Arthur has never felt in his life. And then there are his delusional interactions with neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who offers him some sort of support in tough times.
However, something breaks when a set of teenagers brutally assault Arthur just for ‘fun’. A misfit who tries hard to live a normal life in Gotham that’s overrun by ‘super rats’ widening the wealth gap and igniting anger and resentment in the public, Arthur hits the bottom. The city’s failing health system deprives him of his ‘meds’ – his only escape to sanity. “Everyone is awful these days,” he says. “It’s enough to make anyone crazy.”
When Arthur dressed as a clown once again faces violence by a group of stockbrokers in a train, his gun gifted by a colleague for self-protection comes to the rescue. In a moment of fury compounded with self-defense and angst, he shoots the three to death. Aspiring mayor and billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) headlines the moment to get rid of ‘clowns’ from Gotham, inevitably resulting in protesters dressed as clowns swarming government buildings. While nobody has a clue that Arthur is responsible, he secretly revels in the attention. His transformation to Joker has begun. In a snap, Arthur is reborn as the future Clown Prince of Crime.
Director Todd Phillips is majorly influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver of 1976 where Robert De Niro played a violent loner, and a failed stand-up comic trying to find a break in the business in 1983’s The King of Comedy. De Niro's cameo as the Murray Franklin Show host in Joker somewhere comes across a fitting tribute to Scorsese.
Joaquin Phoenix is a tour de force. The actor lost 24 kg to achieve a skeleton frame for Joker. Twisting and twirling his body like a corkscrew, Arthur uses dance moves to express his agony and ecstasy, leaving a permanent mark on your psyche. Twisted, edgy and gut-wrenching, Joaquin is by far the best ‘Joker’ in the cinematic hall of fame, amongst the likes of Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto, and Heath Ledger. What he brings to the screen is what no Joker was able to do before – humanity. It doesn’t come as a surprise that his performance is being hailed as one of the top contenders for Oscars 2020! As an emotionally stunted individual who finds apathy in violence, Joaquin presents a fascinating character study of ‘Joker’ who isn’t an insane foil for Batman.
Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s mournful score and Lawrence Sher's standout cinematography work in sync with Joker's heightened portrayal of a villain. Todd creates a disturbing, intense, yet undeniably brilliant world. The subject that was earlier explored by Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan gets a revamp with Todd’s vision – where oppression, aggression, and bloodshed become instrumental in giving birth to an anti-hero.
It is a glorious, daring and explosive film in which Todd and Scott Philips (co-screenplay writer) manage to make you uncomfortable yet accept a flawed Joker whose story is sad and painful and deals with mental instability, socio-economic rift, and oppression.
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PeepingMoon gives Joker 4.5 Moons!