Towards the end of Todd Phillips’ Joker, there is a moment of visceral horror that sneaks up on its audience. After many triggers, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has finally embraced his inner showman. As he struts down the stairs doing a clown-like dance, a part of the audience cheers for the protagonist. One begins to wonder if the audience is meant to see something heroic in the unravelling of his character. Are the people in the theatre no different than Gotham city’s bystanders, who dispassionately laugh at Arthur’s plight without the slightest hint of curiosity?
If Arthur Fleck could step out of the screen, he would ask the same question that he gets asked too often in the film, ‘what’s so funny’? And maybe the audience wouldn’t be able to come up with a rational reason for laughing, just like Fleck.
Bowed down by a failing health, he slips in and out of his clown outfit for a job. Going through life in a system that’s broken and constantly uses his eccentric mannerisms against him, Fleck is portrayed as the bottom 1% of the 99%. He cares for his old mother (Frances Conroy), makes his weekly appointments with a state-sponsored psychiatrist, and hides how he gets beaten to pulp on the streets. While trying to make it as a stand-up comic, he maintains a diary that doubles up for his ‘bad thoughts’, something his psychiatrist has advised him to do. Filled with self-loathing and unsettling thoughts, Fleck’s diary goes on to become a bridge between him and his alter ego, who aspires to cause a complete breakdown in Gotham city’s law and order.
Phoenix’s staggeringly poignant performance as Arthur Fleck is hardly surprising. He exhibits moments of humanity, paranoia, grief and irrational behaviour with minimum effort. Phoenix’s all-in approach comes out best when he expertly maneuvers a full-bellied laugh for a character that’s diagnosed with compulsive laughter during an anxiety attack.
He produces them with consistency in every scene, wearing out even the most seasoned viewer.
As a supervillain origin story, Todd Phillips’ Joker goes about its job, tipping one domino after the other; wrecking his employment opportunities, making him the city-wide subject of ridicule, cramming him with abandonment and psychiatric issues. It’s till this point that Joker seems a more than a watchable film. Only when it tries to become a satire that it becomes slightly off-putting, given the film’s own heavy-handed touch while showcasing society’s wicked sense of irony. As Phillips and team try to tie the film to the Bruce Wayne’s Batman universe (probably a studio decision), the film’s satirical ambitions begin to crumble.
Chernobyl composer Hildur Guðnadóttir imbues her DC debut with pathos. Her cello communicates the calm before the storm in Arthur’s mind. It’s a particularly affecting score that empathises with Arthur, as he goes about unmasking his true nature. Guðnadóttir’s score is a primary force behind Phoenix, something that is most visible in a scene inside a public restroom. Here, Arthur breaks out of his gloomy existence and dances with a freedom he has never experienced. The score almost makes it appear like Phoenix is levitating.
While watching Joker, your mind does occasionally wander to the criticism around the film advocating anarchist behaviour. It’s not hard to determine that this is one man’s tragedy first. In fact, the director even possibly gives us a hint of his own personal politics during a throwaway moment in the film when TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) asks Arthur whether the paint on his face is a statement. Arthur responds with, ‘I don’t believe in anything’.
It’s a scary thought, the system reducing a man to a single instinct: to upset the order.