A DC comic book villain that chews through every frame, owning it? Sounds impossible, right? Well, Joaquin Phoenix is magnificent, making every superhero origin film pale in comparison. Forget superheroes, even Darth Vader’s imposing presence and that breath does not chill your bones the way Arthur Fleck does. And I’m not exaggerating.
The movie opens to a stinking Gotham City where the garbage collectors have gone on strike, and the divide between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider by the day. The bleakness is compounded by the music that layers sadness upon misery when you see Arthur Fleck. Clown. Dancing with a ‘Going Out Of Business’ sign at a store. Out of nowhere, kids grab the sign and run. He chases them. They ambush him and beat the heck out of him.
As a viewer you have seen Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson play the Joker and you were afraid of him. What is this? Why is he being battered by kids?
That’s when we realise that he’s just a man putting on a happy face to make ends meet. A failed, battered, bruised clown who can’t even make a child cackle with delight with a peekaboo game in the bus, because the child’s mother says, ‘Stop bothering my child!’. Laughter has no place in Gotham.
A shiver ran down my spine as I heard the laugh. It is a condition he says. And one part of me wanted to believe it too. There is a gentleness in his eyes when he feeds his mum and an unabashed hero worship when he watches Robert De Niro play a David Letterman-type talk show host Murray Franklin. Wait a minute… This seems to go the
King Of Comedy way... VIDEO
Is it going that way? I have not forgotten that De Niro was
Taxi Driver too. Travis Bickle and his slow ride through a city that needed cleansing.
Joaquin Phoenix’s sparse body will shock you. And the ribs that you can count will make you swallow that popcorn as soundlessly as the lump in your throat. But his ability to shut the world off and dance is a mind-blowing experience. Then you realise you too have defence mechanisms that kick in when you’re helpless against the tide of ridiculousness of life.
King Of Comedy playing out in a blood curling version or not, you cannot miss the humongous talent that is Joaquin Phoenix. You watched him in Her (2013) — a man obsessed with an operating system, then last year he showed up as the Oregon cartoonist John Callahan in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get far On Foot. And he’s gaunt, haunted by devils he doesn’t understand, and you are on his side because all he’s asking of his world is civility. Something that is denied to him again and again.
Even his long term idol betrays him by playing a clip of his failed stand-up act. As the world laughs at him, he spirals into madness. Arkham State Hospital is exactly how I imagined it would be. And Arthur asks the records keeper how people get there. He’s asking for help. Again. His dash through the corridors is panic inducing. And till he stops you realise that you have not breathed out either.
If you have lived your life just simply, even though it has been an uphill climb (if the shot of Arthur climbing that never ending staircase is not symbolic of all our lives, I don’t know what is), you will realise that you are on his side. When Randall the clown gives a brown paper bag to Arthur for self-defence, your heart falls into your stomach and stays there. And when Arthur emerges, ready to face the world, dancing as he climbs down the staircase you know you have found the perfect dance of destruction you are going to do some day when you throw a grenade at your world and walk away.
Of course there’s Bruce Wayne and Alfred, and his parents, but this show belongs to Arthur Fleck. And he is still hoping for civility. "I don’t want anything from you!," he says to Wayne senior, "I just wanted a hug. Gawd!" You know he doesn’t. And for once you realise that even if the Dark Knight was to show up, you’d be on Arthur’s side.
Music by Hildur Gudnadottir (who is responsible for the incredible soundtrack in
Chernobyl) is Oscar worthy. She is an accomplished cellist and you come back home with those melancholic octaves haunting you, you know you cannot sleep any more.
Arthur Fleck is a life gone wrong and when he’s in that train once again, ready to share that joke without a punchline with the world, you will want to run away where no one will tell you to ‘just smile’, or feel the claustrophobia of ‘clowns to the left of me jokers to the right’ literally and want to break free. Arthur has promised
The Last Joke style joke to us for ever. But Murray’s words trigger something else altogether.
I did think the movie was done after that face the nation, but Todd Phillips the writer-director (What?! The guy who made
Hangover? He wrote this masterclass of a character study?) and Scott Silver (the writer of Eminem’s brilliant 8 Mile) want to drive you insane. Arthur starts something when he defends himself against three oppressors on a train. Now the mobs are out in full force. The film extracts every drop of humanity from the broken people behind the clown masks, and Arthur is now a reluctant king of horrors. He started out by whispering, "I just don’t to feel so bad any more." And now he’s liberated.
The film shocked me because I did not expect to empathise with one of the greatest villains ever written. It wipes away all your previous memories of what Joker is. You will come away either saying you hate the seething violence in him or you will recognise the need of civility in today’s world of social media where you become lonelier and lonelier. Your heart that plummeted into your stomach is acidic and hurting too.
This is not a supervillain origin story like you have seen before. This is our lives as told by TS Eliot’s Prufrock, "There will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…"
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication. Read her columns