Life and times of Arthur Fleck

DH Talkies

Joaquin Phoenix plays ‘Joker’.

Society. A collective of individuals, who generally work towards a similar goal. It is a tribal concept, born out of the old man’s need to be safe through power that could only be attained in a group. It is the cornerstone of modern life, all things are built around it - traditions, mannerisms, whatever you name it.

But what happens when society becomes too unbalanced? When there are too many people who are almost always on the receiving side of life’s unfairness while those fortunate enough are apathetic to the plight of others? DC’s ‘Joker’ attempts to answer that question through a violent, gritty lens of the 80s in the eyes of Arthur Fleck.

Arthur lives in an apartment with his mother, Penny, and works as a comedian in a run-down Gotham where garbage and massive rats have infested the streets and normal folk are being forced to close businesses because of a lack of demand. By all means, Arthur is doing his best to support himself and his mother as society bears down upon them with its full might.

Arthur does his best to cope - the movie makes that clear. He goes to therapy; as hopeless as it is, he takes his medicines and tries to be as unassuming outside of his work as possible; a fact made complicated by his neurological condition that makes him laugh out loud intermittently and to the disturbance of most of Gotham’s citizens who witness it.

But he does his best  - till he cannot. As much as Arthur loves his mother, he is clearly burdened by her near-constant need for attention. Penny Fleck is a sick woman with many delusions, some perhaps of grandeur. He does his best to be unassuming, even as the burden mounts and mounts like a landfill, until he cannot contain it anymore and in his one bad day, snaps out with rage and hate enough to make any man mad.

Joker is a violent film. It makes no presumptions of it being otherwise, nor does it shy away from it. It treats its subject - Arthur - as a man who is sympathetic, who has been constantly and consistently dealt bad hands, but it does not try to make his actions look sympathetic; in fact, it shows them to be the reprehensible acts of a maniac that they are.

But no man so far gone cannot be without a cause. If Arthur represents the reaction, the shattering will, hate and resentment of society and the downtrodden, then someone has to take the opposing role. This time, the task likes not upon Bruce Wayne, the Batman, for he is but a kid in the movie; the one who drives Arthur to his madness this time are Murray Franklin, played remarkably, though not without some sense of irony, by Robert de Niro, in a brilliant role-reversal from The King of Comedy, and Thomas Wayne, who is quite unlike the generally soft-spoken man died in Crime Alley.

While Murray, the host of a comedy show, makes no effort to hide his disdain of Arthur, a complete stranger, on live TV, driving the already on-the-edge man even further to the mental cliff of insanity, Wayne acts as a proponent of class division, calling the downtrodden “clowns” after a particularly violent act in the film, driving much of the events that permeate through the city of Gotham.

Arthur’s Joker is true to the comics in almost every way as far as his mannerisms go. Like the comics, the Joker here has no method to his madness; he just does things as he goes along, even though there is certainly an arc to his mental descent, characterised by increasingly complex delusions. The only thing that is true of his violence is that they are ever-escalating in their scale and impact.

Joaquin Phoenix, who lost a significant amount of weight for the film, channels not only his own unique take at the Clown Prince of Crime, he also seems to channel most incarnations that have come before him. He has the fashion sense of Cesar Romero, the violent tendencies of Jack Nicholson, the randomness of Heath Ledger and the mental issues and laugh of Mark Hamill.

Together, with the incredibly intelligent script written by director Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, Joker lifts itself to the heights achieved by the likes Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both of which the movie draws heavy inspiration from. Scorsese himself could not have done a better job, except maybe for the music.

Revelling in its darkness, narcissism and nihilistic sense of comedy, Joker is a solid character study of the villain and the situation of the society that we live in today at the same time.


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