Joaquin will win the Oscar for Best Male Performance, next February. No doubt about it. Unless I see a better contender in the coming months, this is what I take away from Todd Phillips’ Joker. The film extends itself over a diaspora of human emotions and sympathy drenches its frames from the very beginning. There have been many interpretations of the eponymous character, the most defining one being the one portrayed by the indomitable Heath Ledger. However, one can say that The Dark Knight’s Joker would pick up where this one leaves off.
The story is a simple – and I would even call it clichéd – a mix of timeworn retellings that make up of most movies dealing with psychotic breaks and the various triggers that society sets out for the weaker sections that populate it. The average guy once again seizing power in the upheaval that follows through the movie, and the dynamic of nihilism combined with psychosis keeps sparking until it bursts forth in the climax.
When I saw the trailer a few months ago, I knew what I was in store for. There was no light that peeked through any of the script and what most of the fluorescence and shadowed daylight did was show the angled bent of the character’s descent into madness. The cinematography of the movie is superb. The play of light and shadow in a scene with Phoenix at the back of a bus, littered with graffiti, moving down a bridge is one of my favourites. A close second is the overhead shot of Phoenix in the dressing room, in full regalia.
I will not go into the details of the story. The script is a character study. The following of a polite, unassuming, troubled soul into his future. His past keeps cropping up at various moments and his struggles to make sense of it keeps aligning the viewer to his state of mind. The beauty of the madness is the innocence of it. Abuse and neglect by parental figures forms the twisted backbone of the Joker here. Watching disability create isolation is another theme that Phoenix portrays so well.
That laugh. Man, he should get an award for just cultivating that laugh.
The more I speak about Phoenix’s performance, the less it would be. The spiral he goes through as he commits the first murders is surreal, and the surrealism flows out toward you in the following dance. Did I mention it was exquisite? This actor has taken the mantle from Ledger and created another story of the Joker. Just as dynamic, chaotic, deranged and tumultuous – but the difference here is that the bats he faces are all within. It is a psychological war that he loses – it is his faith, his hope and his belief structure. It is a study of a victim who turns inward, finds the bedlam within, and lets it devour himself and the ones around.
In accordance with this, Lawrence Sher’s cinematography sets the tone of the movie. Everything is muted, subdued. It’s just the clowns that pop with their makeup and green hair. Some scenes leave a mark: Phoenix’s close ups, the angled back, the scenes in public transport, the sun hitting a running train, and the curtain call scene. Superlative poetry in picture.
I have mentioned the plot is not great. The segues formulate into clichés more than once. The interesting part to note is the fact that though madness is used as a tool to create situations it doesn’t always do so with absolute certainty – that in itself, grasps the idea of insanity. You can see what the character sees, and feels what he feels with no great clarity given to the ones behind the fourth wall. Your sharing this ambiguity makes his madness logical. There are friends who watched it with me who found this fact unnerving.
I will add something as a personal view. When I observe the protagonist’s descent into madness because of certain circumstance, I understand why it happened and I shudder to note how society ignores and mistreats mental illness that leads to his becoming an antagonist. I understand victim hood. I do not celebrate it leading to murder. One must mark a moment of concern when the audience cheers as he descends the stairs, emblazoned in a red suit, and dances. The dance is exquisite and pathetic, true – but there should be the following of dread in the onlooker, not anticipation.
The rest of the cast are mere extensions of Phoenix. DeNiro stands strong. Conroy is her usual raving characters. No, the film is solely Joaquin Phoenix’. This movie is definitely worth a watch, and once you do, it will stay with you for a long while, settling on your heart as ash settles on fresh snow.