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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Joker Movie Review: The Smile Behind Social Injustice

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, is the most highly awaited Hollywood film of 2019 and for good reason.

Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance in The Dark Knight continues to give us goosebumps. 

However, despite the vast comparisons, Joaquin Phoenix has certainly put his best foot forward and that is definitely no secret.

Failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) encounters violent thugs while wandering the streets of Gotham City dressed as a clown.

Disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow dissent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as The Joker.

From the trailer, we get an inkling of Arthur’s mental health state, his sentiments and lifestyle before we see him as the villain we know of today. 

“Is it me or is it gettin’ a lot crazier out there?” is a line which sounds sinister, but to a major extent represents the bizarre psyche of Arthur.

At the beginning of the film, the viewer feels sympathetic towards the protagonist. Seeing him getting beaten up, mocked by on-goers for being different is quite a heart-wrenching sight.

Then observing him take care of his sick mother in a worn-down apartment, offers an eye-opening perspective on how deluded but misunderstood this individual is.

However, as the movie progresses and as the character gradually changes our disgust towards him begins to develop.

The crimes which Arthur commits in the film are deplorable to the greatest degree, but does the film glorify him? I don’t think so.

Phillips showcases him to be a victim of social injustice.

Scenes where he sneaks into an affluent screening of Charlie Chaplin or being attacked by well-to-do men, he is made to be an utter misfit in society.

We get a sense of his voice being unheard of, even with his therapist, showcases how the lower-class are always shrugged off.

His ‘clown’ exterior, really speaking is just his way of making money rather than his personality. It is the society which continues to make him into a clown.

As such, the makeup itself is symbolic of society’s judgements and a ‘mask’ that is burdened upon us by what others think.

The dichotomy of Arthur being in a profession to make people laugh but is yet living a grief-stricken life is fascinating.

Through a successful TV Host comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) Arthur envisions a utopia, in which Murray becomes an alter-ego like figure.

The social injustice aspect is fascinating and hints at how many several unheard voices like Arthur Fleck are forced into becoming the ‘Joker’ by the ignorant system.

Theoretically, excluding the crimes and mental health aspect, Joker somewhat mirrors the Raju character in Mera Naam Joker. 

The key difference between both films is that Raju melancholically accepts his fate by living within the system.

However, Arthur is an angry and disturbed individual who refuses to be confined to the paradigms of society.

In fact, in Mera Naam Joker, the line “the show must go on” symbolises moving on in life regardless of how our circumstances are.

Whereas De Niro’s catchphrase in Joker “that’s life” represents how we must compromise in life and accept the system, even if it is wrong.

It is very interesting to see how clowns are incorporated in both Hollywood and Bollywood to showcase life journies and societal structures.

Phillips paints a gritty and ill-maintained Gotham city and there is constantly an apocalyptic feel to the backdrop. 

The creation of how the city would like in the 80s is marvellous and so are the costumes/other technical aspects… Especially the background score is top-notch.

Moreover, the allegorical referencing of stairs is used well to signify the various moments in Arthur’s life. 

To some extent, these stairs become like additional characters in the movie, like a silent witness to all the tragedies which unfold on screen. 

Also, the Joker story itself is very popular amongst the masses but yet it fits into both genres of arthouse and mainstream cinema.

To present such a balanced fusion of differing cinema styles is a difficult task but Todd Phillips manages it so well.

The biggest highlight of this film is Joaquin Phoenix’s oscar-worthy performance.

From the hysterical laughs to the random idiosyncratic antics, it seems like Phoenix has entirely moulded himself into the character.

It is such a difficult role for any actor to play but this is an outstanding act and will be forever etched into our memories.

As a neutral cinemagoer, I find the film engrossing to watch though the ‘mental health’ aspect could’ve been explored more sensitively and in-depth. 

Overall, Joker transcends from being just a sympathetic story behind the most menacing villain ever.

It symbolises an unjust society can create a Joker out of anyone who is different and does not fit into the conventions of society.

Such a mainstream story is narrated through the exteriors of art-house/commercial cinema and this is a fusion well done.

Joaquin Phoenix has the last laugh and his performance continues to haunt us way after the credits roll.

⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 (4.5/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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