The most disturbing aspect of Joaquin Phoenix’s stunning portrayal is not that laugh. It’s how he will get you to weep for the Joker.
Joker (2019 Film) Synopsis
Meet Arthur Fleck, a not-so-funny clown living in rundown Gotham City. Bullied, sidelined, even the frequent victim of street violence, Arthur lives with his frail mother and suffers from a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at the worst times. After being fired from work for a misunderstanding, Arthur discovers that his mother’s claim of knowing Thomas Wayne i.e. a mayoral candidate and the richest man of Gotham might conceal a larger (and worse) reality. His subsequent investigations leads to his pathetic life further unraveling. Madness and murder soon become his solace.
I believe I first got “acquainted” with the Joker when I was seven. It was either through the Superfriends cartoons or the Adam West Batman series. The short of it, I forever fell in love with the wicked glee of the malicious clown. Neither did I ever stop fearing him. There is something that is always so subtly terrifying beneath that pasty face and inhuman grin.
As an adult, I continue to adore the Clown Prince of Crime. Without fail, he gets my vote for best comic book supervillain in polls. Here’s the thing, though. Fanboy as I might be, I was never comfortable with efforts to imbue him with an extensive backstory. Somehow, the more one knows, the less one fears, or is fascinated by him, if you know what I mean. While most efforts since the 80s did a reasonable job with this backstory business, I seriously can’t say these revised backgrounds deepened my fondness for the Joker. In some cases, I even felt they rendered the mythos mundane.
Which was why I didn’t look forward to this Todd Phillips project.
Which I watched anyway, and was completely blown away by.
The already-known: Joaquin Phoenix’s phenomenal performance. The only thing I can add to all the accolades already flying about is how incredibly relatable it is. You don’t have to be downtrodden, or mentally ill, to feel the hopelessness and bleakness Arthur Fleck is imprisoned in. For that matter, I think his performance also directly speaks to the unfortunate segments of the world trapped in insecurity, poverty, and by unwell parents who are both a source of joy and sorrow. It tugs at the heart. It pains too. Needless to say, it provides so much food for thought and (in)digestion as well.
The brutality depicted is spot-on too; forgive me for this choice of words. It is natural, horrific, consequential and introspective as well. On this, one has to mention the dark message underlying the movie, which is the thorny question of whether violence is ever a justifiable outcome of disenfranchisement.
I can only say, violence is never justified but it is inevitable in so many such cases. For us fans of the Batman/Gotham franchise, this then lays the groundwork for the further violence that follows – Bats himself, the other supervillains, etc. Maudlin as it might sound, I think the real social questions here are, is there anything we can do outside of dismissing the down-and-out as clowns? Anyway we can do before it is too late? I didn’t expect to leave the cinema with these questions in mind. They distress, but to me, they are also the true triumphs of this fantastic movie.