A cinematic piece dedicated solely to the most fascinating character is a double-edged sword. The makers are bestowed with the responsibility of crafting a film that would tread the sliver of a line between empathizing with a maniac and understanding his plight. Todd Philips, in his latest adventure completely fails to display the required skill to tread the aforementioned line. Rather, his direction and writing choices give birth to a bizarrely heroic approach in telling an origin story of a Psychopath.
Arthur Fleck works at a place called ‘ HaHa ‘ that rents out clowns to events, businesses and sometimes hospitals, to cheer up the kids. The film opens with him trying to put on a smile, forcefully spreading his mouth into a smile using his fingers, as a tiny tear rolls down, smearing the make-up on his face. While this poignant opening moment plays out, in the background, the TV news reports about a Rat infested New York City. Arthur is mugged by teenagers, tricked by a co-worker and shooed away by an impolite, protective mother. The screenplay by Todd Philips and Scott Silver gives us these moments of the rejection and ridiculing Arthur faces from the society. These incidents culminate, eventually, in triggering the deeper demons in him to unleash their savagery.
The writers intend for the audience to believe that these insensitive acts by the society around Arthur have made him an object of ridicule and the incubating frustration and negativity find their way out in the bullets he fires at people whom he thinks are the architects of his pain. However, the writers do not get away by using these generic, superficial moments of insensitivity to create something as complex as the pain of Joker. The screenplay falls flat in the first act of the film. The writers assume that Arthur is a troubled man and his mania is only aggrevated as the film moves forward. It does not allow you into his psyche. The film, instead of trying to understand the man, admires his madness and romanticizes it. The film could start from the end of the first act and it would make no difference whatsoever because through the first 20 minutes of the film, the character or the story does not go anywhere. Arthur’s pain is not felt but is informed to us, by the writers and that is the biggest let-down in the film.
Not all is lost, though. In a beautifully written scene, Arthur visits the Wayne mansion and from outside the gate, shows a few magic tricks to a young Bruce Wayne. As he shows off his tricks, a man comes running to protect Bruce from an apparent threat and Arthur responds to his protective behaviour by saying ” I was just trying to make the Kid smile “. This line by him encapsulates the issue Arthur has with the society. It has rotten to an extent where the act of a man showing a magic trick to a kid can be perceived as a possible abduction or an imminent threat; a world that thrives on deciet, trickery and suspicion. This terrific scene sets off a dazzling display of distress in Arthur as he discovers the truths his mother had kept from him for all these years. This discovery about the treachery of the only person he ever loved, his mother, causes an imminent breakout of The Joker from an emotionally rot Arthur. This phase of the film is extraordinarily written and the direction by Todd Philips compliments the wicked brilliance of the writing.
Todd Philips looks at the story unfold, through a devilish lens. He perfectly captures the gloom over Gotham and galvanizes the audience with some of the visuals. Especially the way he chooses to shoot Arthur while he dances the demons out of him, is unsettling, yet brilliant. As a director, he excels in the last act of the film, as Arthur transforms into Joker and is cheered by a mob in joker masks, literally burning down the city. Joker, the film, raises above its mediocre first half to become a riveting watch in the later parts but it resorts to easier ways of doing it. Todd Philips’ adulation towards his character is evident in the climactic frame, as Joker revels in the demonic influence he has infused into the other troubled minds of the society. I sat perplexed in the cinema hall as I witnessed half the crowd in the hall, not only validating the Joker’s horrific acts but also cheering them, as an entire city is reduced to ashes. It is a pity that the filmmakers did not intend to make a film that would provide an insight into a rotting world but rather, the film incites worry. Worry about the society shown in the film and Worry about the people celebrating the triumph of a terrorist.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur and Joker is fantastic. He delivers a physical performance that is very unique to him, which we have loved in his other best work, The Master. The choice to cast him as the Joker is a masterstroke as his weirdly fascinating face lends itself to the painful complexity of Arthur/Joker. Your gut pains every time he laughs, it is incredible how a laugh can carry so much pain in it. Phoenix’s staggering ability drags the film along in portions that are underwhelming. The charisma he exudes locks your focus on him.
Todd Philips chooses to ground the story in a painstakingly created ‘ real ‘ world. He and his co-writer reason every predefined aspect of Joker’s character like the hair colour, the laugh and the makeup. This is precisely the reason why the celebratory climax of the film is problematic. The film becomes a victim of its own character. It is about Mob mentality but, Ironically, it also incites mob mentality. In a film set in a fantastic world, made on a bigger scale with more panache, the celebratory treatment could be justified as a ‘ cinematic ‘ approach but in this film, one cannot help but be appauled by the audacity of the makers to mythicize a monster.