Warning: One scene of extreme brutality involving a scissor, but very effectively used in the context of the film’s build-up.
There’s a scene in JOKER where Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) mother says to him when he keeps telling her that he wants to break into the ‘comedy-club’ scene: “But don’t you have to know to fight to be a comedian?” In essence, if one explodes this line into a film exploring a nihilistic look at life, what one gets is a trouble-some, dark, and truly grim JOKER. Not everything is what could-be; or should-be. Arthur’s thoughts are too sensitive for this world; too sensitively-stupid in fact, while all Arthur is wondering about is what’s happened to this world? Why are people behaving this way? Why is there no civility? And you wonder, if one is living in a grimy, dirty, filthy NYC passed off as Gotham City of the ‘70s, could anyone even afford to be sensitive, unless there’s something really wrong with one’s mind. Arthur thinks one should be civil in life, ‘wait’ for one’s turn at the subway station, wait for one’s turn in life: Alas, that’s not the Gotham city reflected here. It’s a cynical, depressed, brutal world where the rich are busy laughing with and at Chaplin’s Modern Times while the poor are outside surrounded by cops and garbage bags lying around for weeks and, well, super rats!
Joaquin’s Arthur is a clown by day and an aspiring stand-up comic by night. He is so weak and well-behave—inspite of a neurological condition that inadvertently forces laughter out of him even in the grimmest situation—that even 16-year-old kids can snatch a sign-board that he’s clowning around with and beat the hell out of him. And then nobody, including his boss, believes him that he was robbed of a sign-board when he was twirling in front of an out-of-business store! One after the other, Arthur keeps landing into situations where he’s taken for a ride and is faced with betrayals, including the secret of his birth, and the fact that he is on seven different medications for mental illness and that he needs to take care of his old mother [who’s mentally ill too, but Arthur doesn’t know as yet] just compounds his problems. [Social services shuts down the Department of Health due to funding issues, so he’s off his meds; and his case-worker says, “Arthur, the fact is, nobody gives a shit about people like you, and about people like me. Get used to it.”]
One night, he is fired for accidentally bringing a gun – which again is a ploy by his colleague who wants to take his place as the clown – to a children’s hospital. When returning on the subway, three boorish bankers molest a woman a la Shakti, and Arthur – isn’t quite Amitabh Bachchan, but someone who starts giving-in to his condition of uncontrollable laughter— part accidentally, and part in frustration, shoots all the three of those ‘educated’, ‘decent’ members of society. Life then spirals out of control and his transformation begins, and the sinister side begins to dominate. He feels the joy of reacting against a society when he first kills those three, and slow-dances in a dirty, abandoned restroom, as though he is rehearsing for a ballad performance. After that, there’s no stopping, even if it means inciting a revolt in the city. He’s fine with it.
Director Todd Phillips tries to conjure a world that’s full of realism but has unrealistic/comic-book characters like the Joker and the young Bruce Wayne at the center of it. It’s a brave attempt, an unsettling universe in which a comic-book character is hardly comical and says, “All my life I thought my life was a tragedy, infact it is a comedy!” There is a firm reference and reverence to Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin – and in a subversive way, Robert De Niro now plays one of the ‘animals’ that come out at night— and a vigilante mood built up with a terrific slow-burn feel. There’s fine aerial cinematography of the city’s landscape with a train running as smoothly and slithering as slickly as a snake: One has the working class; and one the upper-class – it’s a remarkable scene when one contrasts the subway scene and the train Arthur takes to meet Thomas Wayne; the former is filthy with graffiti all over; the latter has folks all suited and booted. It might come off as campy in any other film, but here, with the terrific back-ground score and Joaquin’s intensity, it’s one hell of a contrast.
Above all, like a pyramid’s top, this is dominated by Joaquin at his peak. He is the jewel in this crown: Even if in this film as a whole, there could be some jewels that could have done with some polishing. This is an incendiary performance burning through the screen. His first scene, he’s facing the mirror, and we face him. He stretches his lips and cracks his mouth into a fake smile, it sends shivers down your spine. And then there’s a scene in close-up, the camera literally crawling all over his face, for a full 2-3 minutes maybe, and he is just laughing, guffawing, inward, out-loud, choking on his own laugh, trying to control his laughter, trying to whittle it down, and the camera just won’t leave him, and our eyes won’t leave the screen, as our bodies sit still in fear, in awe, in anticipation of what’s going to happen next. He captures you from that moment, and then on, it’s a sordid love affair between the audience and Joaquin: A love affair you know is addictive, is brutal, and dangerous for you, but you want to be in it. You try to look away from Arthur’s bleak world, but you cannot look away from Phoenix’s Arthur. It’s as though he has put you in a meditative stance, you just want to sit there, not come out of it! It’s grim, dark, it’s visceral, but hell yes, it’s addictive, and it’s a drug that won’t leave your system till you are with him on screen and several, several, hours and days after. He dances elegiacally after the first brutal spurt of violence on the subway, as if he’s lost his/her virginity, as though he now belongs to this world, and ow cannot be socially-ignored. In a yellow and red coat with a clownish get-up – we know what all of America and all of South Bombay/Delhi are going to wear on Halloween this year – he dances in ecstasy after two brutal murders while two detectives look at him from the top of his tenement. It’s in slow-motion, and it’s as though one’s watching a bloody Broadway musical! [He repeatedly keeps doing this dance in his tighty-whities, with his skin protruding over his bony, emaciated frame, and that’s both a horror and joy to watch. In the pre-climactic scene, when he is goaded on by masked vigilantes, he is shattered to the bones after an accident. Slowly, he coughs up blood, he hears the roars of revolt around him, gets up on the car, very slowly, taking in each and every moment and begins his elegiac dance, as though he is the leader – well, if not a leader, the usherer, of a new world. As he gets up and starts dancing, you want to get up on your seat and dance with him and bow down to him for this performance. The rousing music, compounded with Phoenix’s act, gives you goose-bumps and shakes you to the core. Somewhere in a by-lane, a quiet Bruce Wayne stands shocked looking over his parents’ bodies shot-dead.
The best scene, for me, is the one where he smolders inside, and yet, ever-so-gently as the always-happy boy as his mother used to remember him, replies to the routine questions of the case-worker, and I paraphrase:
You don’t listen, you people don’t listen, do you? Every-week, you ask me the same questions, the same time, about my thoughts: Do I have any negative thoughts? All I have ever had in life are negative thoughts, yet you ask me the same question!! Why isn’t anybody in this town listening? What’s wrong with you?
The searing pain in his eyes, that’s the pain of a life-time. If you thought you had seen all of Phoenix in WALK THE LINE or THE MASTER, you are in for the joke of your life. He simply blasts the joke out and gives us a Joker that is hardly a joking matter.