I don’t think all films should have to entertain. Films, like art, can also be used to disrupt and disturb; as a means of evoking change. And that is exactly the territory that director Todd Phillips plunges into in ‘Joker.’ It is a character study of a man’s descent into madness. It is a story without joy as it unfolds to be a fitting origin story for an iconic comic book villain and at its center, a magnificent performance by Joaquin Phoenix.
Make no mistake, despite its art house sheen and dark and heavy themes, ‘Joker’ is a comic book movie. It is set in the fictional Gotham city in a period setting that feels like a mix of the 60s and the 80s, but with certain contemporary sensibilities and social ills. Gotham is a powder keg, a city deteriorating on a daily basis, and everyone is on edge.
This is a fictional world where all of the world’s ugliness is amplified. Like I said earlier, there is no joy here except in the heart of Arthur Fleck, a clown with ambitions to be a stand-up comedian but is struggling under the weight of his mental health issues.
He is unhinged, caring for his unwell mother and trying to survive in a city where crime is high and civil unrest is just around the corner. Arthur is trying to stay positive even when he is constantly beaten down by the world, and has a difficult time connecting with people, because of the various manifestations of his mental health issues.
Todd Phillips makes wonderful directorial choices that allows us to go deep into Arthur Fleck’s psychosis, figuratively seeing the world through his eyes, and it’s not a pretty place. Unafraid to get really close or to capture the alienating physicality of Arthur’s being, ‘Joker’ is unafraid to show you a man that is unraveling in the most horrible of ways; a man who is drowning in the world around him.
The most surprising thing about the film is that we all know where this will end up. There is no pretension that this isn’t Batman’s Joker. It’s Gotham City. Thomas Wayne is an important character in this film. We know what happens to Arthur Fleck but as we go through the journey into his madness, we can’t help but think that maybe it would turn into some surprisingly hopeful and happy ending. That maybe there is a glimmer of hope in this dark and twisted tale.
There’s none, and that’s what makes ‘Joker’ such a dangerous film. Because that feeling of hope that it would somehow end differently is some level of connection with a character who eventually submits to the darkness. It’s a dangerous line and — while I feel no sympathy for Arthur Fleck because the comic book world that forms this narrative tells me that the transformation is inevitable — there might be people who will find some measure of solace in such a nihilistic portrait of the world.
But while I feel that it is dangerous, it is a tremendous work of cinema that completely revolves around Joaquin Phoenix’s astounding performance that truly brings us into the mind of a man descending into nihilism and chaos. In a way, it almost feels connected to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the same character; except Joaquin Phoenix’s grasp of the character is at its rawest state. Phoenix is constantly grappling with a fading idea of the meaning of life, holding on to it no matter how fleeting it is in Gotham City.
In its 121-minute running time, ‘Joker’ will have you by the edge of your seats, assaulting you and barraging you with the darkest depictions of our world, forcing you to watch as this reality batters a man to the brink of embracing chaos and nihilism. And the cruelest joke of all? He calls himself The Joker.
It’s a hard film to take. It’s demanding and disturbing and dangerously asks that you would sympathize with a man you know will become a monster. It’s daring and it will be divisive. And for any work of art, that would be a success by any standard.
'Joker' opens in Philippine cinemas Thursday, October 3, 2019. Find showtimes for 'Joker' and book your tickets in advance!