It is a movie designed to create a dialogue. It is an event that is meant to spark anarchy. It is a call-to-war by the masses on the privileged. This interpretation of Joker finally finds itself commentating on the broken structure of the current society, or at least, that version of society experienced daily by regular individuals like you and me. Yes, it is timely, what with all the protests going on in Hong-Kong, and the mass-shootouts in the USA. An iconic Batman nemesis, famed for not having a backstory, finally gets one. And no surprise, he is an average Joe with mental issues, who’s down on his luck, working as a clown-for-hire and living with his mother. So what do you get, apart from predictability?
Todd Phillip’s Joker aims to portray a person’s descent into madness, partly due to their mental deficiencies and partly due to their environment. It makes you think of the ifs – would a mentally unstable person get the help they need if they grew up in favourable conditions? How would a mentally stable person turn out if they grew up under these circumstances? For this movie to work, screenwriters Todd Phillips and Scott Silver check both the boxes with a permanent marker. What you get is a gripping character study of one distressed nutcase – Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix.
I’m not sure how long it took for everything to come together. It seems as if it was not that long ago when news hit of a new Joker movie in the works. Before you realized, daily set pictures of Phoenix donning the new clown suit hit the internet. A smart marketing campaign, but it made me reconfirm Phoenix’s commitment to a role. From a scrawny, contorting figure to the uncontrollable, iconic laugh – he’s got it all down to a T. This captivating performance gets complimented by Lawrence Sher’s very personal cinematography. The haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir holds your hand and accompanies you into the madness.
Joker may work as a slow-burn character study, but it does not have much of anything else working in its favour. Sure, the societal commentary is timely, but why does it have to be so heavy-handed? It’s hard to buy the narrative when every bully that inflicts pain on the titular character gets B-movie dialogue and depth. It’s a film where seasoned actors like Robert DeNiro and Francis Conroy get shafted to give Phoenix’s performance a wide berth. The lack of focus on these other aspects of the Joker’s world robs the movie of making any real, impactful commentary. It’s a staple DC problem – Edginess does not equate to enlightenment. Why they chose to link this to the classic Wayne mythology is anybody’s guess.
Todd Phillips takes obvious inspiration from the works of Martin Scorsese, but his directional abilities don’t translate the subject matter to screen as effectively as it should. I had no high hopes from the maker of Old School and The Hangover trilogy, but he did manage to surprise me with the creative depiction of violent sequences. This is a film-maker trying to branch out and succeeding in parts.
With another director and a slightly polished-up screenplay, the movie might’ve been the force of nature everyone thinks it is. But what ultimately works for Joker’s is the hypnotizing performance of its lead that makes the audience understand and get behind him.
Rating – 4/5