If the philosophy 101 theory holds true, and art is indeed a barometer of the times, then Joker is a frightening harbinger of doom, a dark mirror reflecting the monstrous society we have created. As Arthur – or Joker, as he prefers being called – reflects, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Ten minutes in, I stopped thinking, I stopped reviewing and I stopped worrying about deadlines, taxes and life outside the theatre (which is quite something if you live in Joburg in 2019). After 122 minutes, I left feeling entirely winded, intensely worried about the bubbling violence and hatred erupting all over the world, but more importantly, determined to listen to the marginalised, to see and hear them. Because cancelling them out, as is the fashion of the day, is coming back to bite us in the arse.
Please note, Joker does not aggrandise the flawed villain that turns to violence, as the Twitterati (who have not seen it) are claiming. Yes, director Todd Phillips does have empathy for Arthur; he does point out where the system fails him, and even questions our handling of mental illness, but he firmly places the responsibility for Arthur’s misdeeds on his shoulders. Hence, you move between feeling sorry for him and being repulsed by him, but end up squarely against him.
Using a joke(r) as a theme running throughout the film was quite cleverly done. Arthur wants nothing more than to be a stand-up comedian, to make people laugh. (His mother always made a fuss of what a happy child he was.) Until he hits stardom on stage, he works as a clown. Thing is, he is not funny, not in the least. He spectacularly bombs at stand-up, and he makes unsuspecting children cry. He laughs at all the wrong things, and admits, “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life.”
Then, there is the laughter. Whenever something momentous happens to him, he makes a sound that is halfway to laughter, halfway to crying, but all the way to crazy. He hands out a card, saying it is a condition. What is noteworthy is that when he goes off his meds, and he descends into madness and violence, that unnerving laugh evens out – it becomes “normal”, like he finally gets the joke. He seems more logical, less crazy and, at last, comfortable within himself – his twisted, crazy self.
Which brings me to how mental disability is depicted in the film. I will leave the more thorough investigation to trained professionals. Hence, only a few notes. Arthur in the outside world, and Arthur with his mother, are two different people. He is a sweet and patient son at home; he heats her TV dinners and watches her favourite programme with her. Still, the relationship is twisted and has a profound effect on him - the nature and the nurturing of the relationship.
Phillips also points to the system not really caring about Arthur. They simply close the department that looks after these individuals, and cut off his meds. I repeat, it is not held up as the only reason for his violence.
I walked into the film fully cognisant of the fact that Joaquin Phoenix is one of our most gifted actors. Yet, he still blew me away. He is magnetic to watch – the way he twists his emaciated body, his very effeminate dancing sequences, his arrogant strutting and violent outbursts. All of it is deserving of an Oscar.
It is magnificently shot and graded with the rich browns, blues, burgundies and turquoises of the ’70s. The use of cello makes you want to cry, while the rest of the classic score makes your skin crawl. The sound design is clean.
Joker is an expansive film, a cinematic marvel with plenty of jaw-dropping scenes. The unrelentingly dark nature of this instalment will, however, frighten many cinemagoers. Be warned. Or heartened.