While the perfumed and tuxedoed privileged of Gotham City are enjoying the antics of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936) inside a gilded theater, the city’s marginalized working class are outside, angrily protesting the inequities that have become blatant after three affluent yuppies were brutally shot by a clown aboard a subway train.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the perpetrator of the crime that divided the city, finds himself walking past the crowd, completely oblivious of the political pining of the enraged public he has inspired since his beef is personal. He is a total outsider, perhaps the poorest of the poor but is still maltreated and abused by his own. His only hope is a man who represents the upper crust, a man who can salvage him and his sick mother (Frances Conroy) from their misery.
Irony as a persisting presence
Irony is a persisting presence in Todd Phillip’s Joker.
If one had no idea that the title refers to one of pop culture’s most enduring villains, he would probably think that the film is a comedy brimming with punchlines, much like Phillip’s previous films The Hangover (2009) and its two sequels. However, the only real joke in Joker happens near its end and curiously involves a mass murderer, a man begging for his life and his only way out of danger a few inches too high for him to reach. The rest of the film is enveloped in morbidity.
Humor is as scarce a luxury here, as is innocence.
There is not one character in the film that is untainted by either vice or brutality. The screenplay, written by Phillips and Scott Silver, isn’t really interested in creating complex creatures languishing in an unforgiving urban landscape but in seeing how villainy can be stretched and manipulated by both context and sentiment to make it teeter towards being acceptable.
There is very real danger in the film’s convincing blurring of the lines, especially since it does so for a pop culture icon who has previously represented unflinching amorality.
Definitely, there is power in Joker.
That it provokes critics to warn viewers of its likely repercussions is a testament to Phillips’ expert utility of a storied intellectual property towards all sorts of agendas its audience can appropriate or misappropriate the film for. It is a clever and ingenious elevation of a material that used to be the stuff of juvenile appreciation of notions of good and evil, turning it into both a mannered character study in the shape of an origin tale and possibly a work that echoes all the divides in class, capital, culture, politics and taste that define these troubled modern times. (READ: ‘Joker’ not a hero, says Warner, as Aurora families voice concern)
Joker thrives in presenting the most pessimistic of world views and relies on an undisputed miscreant’s obscure and unhinged charisma mined from a modification of a familiar tale that also serves as a coarse portraiture of society’s glaring ills to keep it from being a fully exhausting misery-driven melodrama.
The film is buoyed by the spectacle that is Joaquin’s performance. He fully transforms, turning himself into a skeletal figure, a specter shaped by the broken humanity that is further rattled by the cruelty of an insensitive metropolis. He is both frightening and fragile, a monster-in-the-making whose fate has already been decided but whose journey towards there is adorned with as much machinated apathy and alienation Phillips can muster within the context of a comic book movie aspiring for arthouse gravity and elegance.
If Joaquin ultimately takes care of the titular figure who is warped into some kind of martyr and tragic anti-hero, it is Phillips’ task to make the most villainous of villains feel like the subject of oppression.
Phillips turns Gotham into a vile character. While Gotham has always served as an even more tainted version of New York City, Phillip’s Gotham is rotten and feels like a nightmarish alternate version of the already corrupt and smog-filled New York City of several decades ago. This is probably the first time Gotham is shown not from the eyes of the rich and able, whose ultimate aim is to keep the status quo and enchant the citizens with deeds of heroism but from the eyes of those in despair and desperation.
Joker indeed flourishes in abject vileness.
It fetishizes the full extent of human savagery and rationalizes hate in a society that has become too crowded for its own good. It is both indulgent and nonchalantly incessant in its gloomy outlook of a humanity.
It is best to see it with an openness for discourse. — Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ Tirad Pass.
Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.