'Joker' review: Nobody laugh, the joke's on you

Photo credit: Niko Tavernise - Warner Bros.

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Frances Conroy
Direction: Todd Phillips
Rating: ****½


“Where words prevail not, violence prevails” - The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd

Set in the Gotham city of the 1980s, 'Joker' is a prequel to the cult 'Batman' movie series. The movie charts the downward spiral of a neurotic mind, thrown into a further tizzy by the system. What’s scarier is that, by the end of it all, you may end up questioning your own sanity. Is it just you or “is it getting crazier out there”? The 'Joker' is a difficult character. It’s not easy being him. It’s not easy playing him. And, by extension, it’s definitely not easy watching him.

If the last ‘Joker’ died with Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix has revived him. In a wondrously destructive manner, Phoenix brings out the skanky underpinnings of a dystopian society. Plagued by inequality, Gotham is a story of every other city out there. The haves eventually have their say, often remaining indifferent to the plight of the have-nots — “clowns” — as they are referred to. And when the “clowns” take centre stage, there’s anarchy. Something that our present day society seems not to understand, but somehow fight.

The struggles are real. At first, it starts within. Fatherless and abused, Arthur's childhood is marred by violence. Adulting is not easy either. Arthur is trampled over everyday by the vagaries of life — only to wake up in an even more fragile state. His boss is non-accommodating, ever-suspecting. His comic acts are less appealing. More than often, the joke is on him. And, in his words, his psychologist “doesn’t listen”.

As Arthur gets punched, kicked in the guts, pinned to the ground, the city overlooks. With dirt, blood and tears smudging his white make-up, he returns home defeated. When he cries, the world mistakes it for laughter and hates him even more, mindless of his ‘special’ condition. This, in a nutshell, is his day.

The only thing Arthur cares about is his mother (Frances Conroy). With every passing day, her health deteriorates. His most cherished time is when he is glued to the TV set alongside his mother, watching his favourite comic star (played by Robert de Niro) in action. He fantasises about making it someday.

Arthur’s mother also has a hero in Thomas Wayne, the wealthiest man in the city. Then, like everyone else, Wayne disappoints him. This movie isn’t about heroes. It’s about a loser who eventually comes to the fore. That’s why it is easier to develop a subliminal connect to the underlying narrative.

In due course, the plot goes on to reveal damning details about Arthur’s existence. As the whole earth beneath him slips away, Arthur finds himself thrown to a point of no return. His descent into madness is hastened. What does he do? What finally leads to his metamorphosis into the 'Joker'?

In the fragments of Arthur's lost self, we can see the reflection of our own violent thoughts hidden deep within the crevices of our minds; a reflection of the craving we all have to see this world ruined in the hope that a new one is resurrected. When living becomes unceremonious, people have the option to struggle furthermore or to revolt. While the first half delves into the protagonist's suffering, the second half is all about retribution.

Arthur loses all fear, control and self-pity. As the Joker is born, it's an experience almost akin to the Buddha's enlightenment, this destructive awakening of self, and Arthur finally discovers that he is no longer alone. As the movement rages, the city burns.

The imagery of a Gotham in tatters and the forlornness of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting musical score add to the thrill. The economy of movement and dialogue, best illustrated by Phoenix’s powerful performance, keeps us in a daze throughout the running time. The characters and the story maybe fictional, but the Joker's relevance is not all lost in the real world.