“Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music” is a quote wrongly attributed to Nietzsche, the favorite philosopher of angsty boys and fascists. In Todd Philip’s Joker origin story, Arthur Fleck dances to a symphony of violence and hurt, literally and figuratively, one that plays in his fractured mind, and while it is left open to interpretation whether this is the definitive origin story of the greatest comic-book villain of all-time or just the fleeting fantasy of a man who has lost his mind, one of the many pasts the Joker has invented for himself (If I am to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice, as the Joker says in the Killing Joke), a schizophrenic cocktail of narcissistic hubris, a punchline to a joke whose set-up we are never meant to see or to quote the titular character in the film “You won’t get it”, one thing is certain: “Joker” is a deeply unsettling and disturbing film.
It is also deeply personal, anchoring itself on one person’s perspective, Arthur Fleck, an unreliable, hallucinating man, involuntarily celibate, an incel as they call them nowadays and in my days the official label was “Jadavpur University engineering male student”, who lives with an overbearing, dominating and ultimately equally unreliable mother, trying desperately to excel at something he is so obviously so terrible at, being picked on by any and everyone, but persisting because of a belief in his purpose in life: to make people laugh. And when he finds that there really is no purpose to life at all, he snaps, or does he really, and becomes Joker, or does he?
This is as far removed as one can be Heath Ledger’s Joker, a super villain in the DC universe, flamboyant with a swagger and arrogance big as all outdoors, soaring set-pieces, crackling lines on the nature of evil and the need for violence in society, in violent conflict with Batman, memorable but in the cocoon of a world not meant to be taken seriously.
Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker though is real. He is every-man, cracking under the pressure of maintaining a happy smiling face, as the world breaks down around him, awkward, conflicted, suicidal, desperate. Even though set in the Batman world, this is hardly what you would expect in a superhero movie, there is little in terms of special-effects, there is no antagonist to the main character, and most of the drama happens with no dialog, Arthur Fleck holding his lips in a parody of a smile, Arthur Fleck lying on the road in a fetal position after being jumped by punks, Arthur Fleck staring at a mirror, and of course Arthur Fleck dancing to the music in his mind. This is, in my opinion, a far far greater acting performance than Ledger’s, because of the singular absence of the props of modern escapist film–the action, the dialog, the twists, the conflict between the hero and the villain. Joker is almost like a single person play, the camera lingers on Phoenix’s face, and his misshapen body, and his eyes, and the only support he has is an amazing background score, but that is it, that is all he has, and the rest of what you feel, and trust me this will make you feel, whether it be repulsion or admiration I cannot guarantee, is all because of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting.
Is the Joker a dangerous film? Does it justify violence as the only purpose to an existence of hopelessness? Will it embolden the incels on social media? Does it promote white male victimhood? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care, and if you do, please do read the hot outrage on the liberal US media on Joker, where it sits on 69% on Rottentomatoes whereas fun but strictly genre-fare like WonderWoman and Avengers End Game sits at above 90%.
But if you want to see what cinema can be, the power it has when put in the right hands, to shock and disturb and make you think, then watch Joker.