In one of the scenes in “Joker”, actor Joaquin Phoenix tells his psychologist, “ I don’t really think I exist, as nobody acknowledges that I do.” The dialogue is spoken with power and he takes potshots at himself. It’s this self destructive and yet distinctly seductive self pity that lays the foundation for “Joker” and its storytelling. One feels the loneliness of the movie’s protagonist and his bleak outlook for his present and the future.
“JOKER” is a character created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane for DC Comics in 1940 as Batman’s arch nemesis and is arguably the most famous and possibly the biggest comic book villain ever created. He has been played by the world’s best actors including Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Cesar Romero, Jared Leto, Mark Hamill and now Joaquin Phoenix. The character has appeared in dozens of comics and scores of animated films, television series and motion pictures.
WHERE DOES ‘JOKER’ STAND IN THE BATMAN AND DC PANTHEON ?
“Joker” written and directed by Todd Phillips which stars Joaquin Phoenix as the clown prince of crime is a film which has been created as a separate event with no bearing directly from the films released earlier. Although the film’s story is set in the Batman comic book universe, there are some major changes in the plot line and in a way it borrows from comics and films released earlier. But it will be safe to say that “JOKER” as a movie has no predecessor as of now but it builds on incidents and ideas created earlier. Eg. The name of Joker in comics is Jack Napier, here he is Arthur Fleck. Similarly, in “Batman” movie, he works as a chemical plant manager but here he plays a failed comedian. It will be safe to say that this film is a vision of Director Todd Philips on the Joker which is previously unpublished in any form.
The film chronicles the life and times of a struggling comedian in the 1970’s in Gotham City (more like New York). Arthur Fleck lives with his mother in a small apartment and is trying to make ends meet. He wants to make it big on TV and particularly fancies being Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) , a famous TV Show host. He is also on multiple medications as he is not exactly stable and builds up a lot in his mind as a release mechanism of the enormous stress he endures. As his life unfolds and his challenges grow bigger, he is systematically rejected and suppressed by his superiors. All looks normal when you see him, but the storytelling always gives you a hint that he might be a bit crazy! He finally evolves into something far more sinister than you can imagine and in some ways becomes a manifestation of his own issues.
WHERE AND WHEN IS ‘JOKER’ BASED AS A STORY?
The film is set in particularly turbulent time in Gotham City in the 1970s. The film distinctly focuses on a civil rights movement where some unexpected events are taking place. There is a 2 week long garbage collectors/workers strike. There are televisions with classics like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times being screened. One can see that racism is rampant. The Federal government is cutting off budgets on welfare. Arthur gets affected here as he loses his medications when his own health center is closed down. The rich are being loathed and hated by all. There are mass protests all over Gotham City. These incidents and movements indirectly help Joker to evolve and build his perspective on life.
INSANITY UNDER THE GUISE OF HUMANITY!
One of the main themes in this movie is to introduce the viewers to the ‘humanity’ in the Joker. Todd Phillips shows us umpteen number of times when Arthur is being harassed and heckled by various people. The way he is punched in the face and kicked around by local goons. This is a peculiar issue for any director who is working on Joker as the insanity in him is being nurtured by his ‘humane’ self which allows others to step on his dreams repeatedly. In the last scene, Arthur starts singing Frank Sinatra’s famous lines “Some people get kicks by stompin on others dreams”. There is a concerted effort to show that Arthur wants to fit the system but always gets crushed. And it is in response to that he picks up a gun and a life of crime. The relationship which he enjoys with his neighbor played by Zazzie Beetz is a perfect example of Arthur trying to be normal. But as the movie progresses, the viewer gets the gist as to why Arthur ‘imagines’ a regular life.
MUSIC, FILM REFERENCES IN THE ‘JOKER’
One of the films major pluses is the strategy behind its score and the soundtrack used to amplify the narrative. Arthur believes in classic Hollywood and feels that he himself is a ‘showman’ who wants to spread ‘happiness’. He loves songs of Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Arthur does a victory dance when he enters the TV show in the end. He does it before he commits something major in his life. That signature move later becomes his trademark entry at a crime scene.
Todd Phillips has hired the highly talented cello player and composer Hildur Gudnadotirr. Hildur is an Icelandic prodigy who at just 37 years has given music to seminal content like “Chernobyl”, “The Revenant”, “Sicario”, etc. She plays the cello to perfection and uses other instruments as well. The final piece “Call Me Joker” will remind you of ‘The Dark Knight’ but will build its own place in your mind. Hildur’s music is an integral part of “Joker”’s narrative.
Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker gives a performance of a lifetime. His physical, emotional state doesn’t look like acting. His immersive emotions and facial switches grab you by the collar. I think “HER” , “Gladiator”, “The Master” and “Walk The Line” were his best parts but here he takes you on a tour de force. He occupies the screen for at least 80% of the time and you don’t get bored at all. He forces you to do a see saw of sorts as a viewer, you cry with him and then you feel supportive of him despite him being the villain. Robert DeNiro shines in a small part. Zazzie Beets doesn’t have much time, but she does play the voice of reason.
THE DIRECTION OF TODD PHILLIPS
Phillips has painted his own imagery and vision of the Joker. He has very skilfully harnessed the acting of Phoenix by giving him the space which was needed. At a low budget, he has managed to shoot a film which not only builds the mystique of the Joker but makes you feel arrested in his anguish and pain. All the same he does stay clear from endorsing him. Some incidents from the films are taken from various comic books but they all end up coming together as one in the story. Phillips has also strategically focused on just the ‘Joker’ with passing references to the Wayne family. It’s this sharp focus on limited characters and next to none special effects builds the film into an emotional drama rather than a superhero/supervillain adventure.
‘JOKER’ is a near perfect film if seen without the baggage of your understanding of earlier DC Comics films. It doesn’t glorify crime in my view but at the same time doesn’t really offer an incentive to be successful like a normal human being. It is a watershed film in popular culture and comic book films. I would give this movie a 9 out of 10