Released 2019. Director: Todd Phillips
A CLOWN'S JOB IS TO MAKE YOU LAUGH. NOT THIS ONE. Joker is out to shock you, disturb you, stir your inside and confront you with dark thoughts. For some, this will not be easy viewing; and people will still be talking and analysing it for a long time. Joker is the kind of movies that lives on and on, discussed, referenced, praised, vilified, long after we’ve had enough of it.
As an origin story of a comic-book character, Joker is not your usual entertainment candy of visual effects and whoosh-bang action fest. The genesis of Batman’s arch nemesis explores the transformation of meek and marginalised Arthur Fleck into the criminally insane Joker and drills into issues that society tends to turn a blind eye on.
Arthur Fleck is a gangly man with a nervous demeanour. Beneath the face paint and garish costumes is an emaciated body with bones protruding under his skin. Arthur works as a clown, waving sale signs outside struggling shops, entertaining kids at hospitals. He’s the sole carer of his ailing mother, who hasn’t told Arthur the truth about his birth and childhood. He’s prone to cackle uncontrollably, a condition resulting from childhood trauma, abuse and neglect. He’s a loner, bullied and defenceless, but harbours a dream to become a stand-up comic.
In Joaquin Phoenix’s riveting performance, the Joker is not so much a clown and a mass killer but a symbol, an icon for the voiceless, angry and misunderstood. Phoenix gives an intense and unnerving portrayal of a man who crosses the line and takes matters into his bloodied hands. He makes me sympathize with Arthur, yet also repulsed by the heinous acts of the Joker. A seemingly incompatible view which is also how I feel about the movie on the whole.
The Joker’s emergence from his shell, as with other aspects of the movie, such as the looks, setting and theme, recall Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Adding to that association is Robert DeNiro, who starred in both of them, having a supporting role here as a TV host idolized by Arthur, probably a father he never had. Yet Arthur’s hero mocks him and falls far short of the pedestal where Arthur enshrines him.
Speaking of father figures, Gotham City’s mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne comes dangerously close to fit the description at one point. A tantalizing possibility that Arthur might be Bruce Wayne’s half-brother is a clever surprise that, if it wasn’t refuted later, would have been such a dramatic revelation, that the hero and villain of Gotham City have always been two brothers born on opposite ends of privilege and nurture.
But Joker also opens the door to a place altogether more grisly, painful and real. One might call it an unflinching fictional depiction of mental health gone unsupported. Joker, even as a work of fiction, shines a light on the acute need to look after those around us with mental health issues. Arthur’s social worker telling him she no longer could help him due to budget cut says it all. Arthur’s workmate giving him a gun to shoot his bullies is a whole new discussion topic to itself. In a way Joker is a two-hour public service announcement on how society needs to care more for the psychologically vulnerable.
Joker is a divisive movie and it’s not difficult to see why. Some people have pointed out we do not need to see a movie about a lone white male with mental health issues go off the rails and start killing people. Some people may not like what it says; others may not like how it’s said. I hope the legacy of Joker is not an obsession over the Joker’s actions, but a lesson in how a tragedy like this could be prevented.