I watched Joker a few nights ago.
*pauses for dramatic effect*
Personally, I’ve know that Joaquin Phoenix is got-damn incredible ever since I watched Walk the Line at the age of 17. The movie blew me away. The fact that the movie actually blew me away is in itself mind-boggling.
Well, the movie is about a white, male country singer who battles with addiction. I am not white. I am not male. And my idea of a country singer is Miley Cyrus.
I did not know anything about Johnny Cash. I did not know any of the singers that were presented in the movie but I was thoroughly enthralled. The story got me good. But more than the storyline, his performance was compelling.
Where I gush about Joaquin Phoenix like a demented fan girl
It’s been 13 years and I still remember bits of Walk the Line. I remember the way Johnny Cash/Joaquin Phoenix passed out on stage during a performance. I remember the struggle in their marriage. I remember not feeling one second of restlessness during a movie that was 2-hours and 20-minutes long.
Most of all, I remember Joaquin Phoenix. I remember he became Johnny Cash. He was him. No one can tell me otherwise. Not even Johnny Cash’s ghost.
Looking away from Joaquin Phoenix when he’s on screen, even during parts that I found myself cringing (in fearful anticipation because there was a far bit of violence) at, particularly during the Joker, is impossible. He commands your attention and not because he’s your typical delicious-to-look-at-actor or because he’s a funny, benignly entertaining guy.
Joaquin Phoenix has simply mastered his craft. Watching anyone deliver a skillset that they’ve worked hard at and made their own is truly breath-taking. A lot of people claim to be actors. Quite a number are good actors. They deliver good performances and they sometimes make you forget that they’re an actor playing a role. But Phoenix is totally different. You know who he is. You know how good he is. But every time you watch him, he redefines the standards of an actor and he shows you what great acting is really capable of: empathy.
Any movie-goer would be able to easily recall a movie during which they felt sucked into the story. The plot took over and then they were simply an extension of the scenes, following along with the characters’ thoughts and actions. An almost out-of-body experience that ends in a couple of hours with you safely ensconced in your seat.
The Joker managed to very successfully, and a little creepily, do just that.
Where I muse on what the Joker is about
I watched the movie with my twenty-one-year-old sister. At the end of the movie, we both just sat in our seats and stared at the screen. I’ve watched plenty of movies with her and this is the first time a film has ever elicited that response from us. We just sat there, grappling with the story.
When the movie starts, you feel really sorry for Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s government name). He works as a clown to make a meagre living, supporting himself and his sickly mother. Arthur Fleck is presented as a weird guy.
As we all know, rich and strange makes you eccentric. But poor and strange makes you weird.
Life has dealt him a shitty hand and he’s trying his best to cope. But over the course of a few days, a number of occurrences take place that catapult him to his moniker and its accompanying legacy. He gets beaten up by kids. A less-than-well-intentioned colleague gives him a gun. His social worker tells him funding has been cut to his department and he stops getting his meds. The gun falls out at work and he gets fired. He almost gets beaten up on a train but uses the gun to defend himself and shoot the absolute shit out of three rich kids. He reads one of his mother’s letters that she has been riding to Thomas Wayne forever. He reads a file the local psychiatric hospital kept on his mother.
Add all this stress to a mental illness and subtract medication and you’re left with a man who can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality. His pills kept his delusions controlled but left him feeling miserable. To quote verbatim, ‘All I have are negative thoughts.” Without them, he is on one helluva trip.
When Arthur finds out some information about this childhood that his mother had intentionally kept from him (and for good reason) he realizes that his life is nothing but a comedy. That his trust and belief in all the forces that were in control of his life in one way or other – his mother, the system, society – had caused him pain and made him believe he was nothing. The truth about his childhood brings him revelation and freedom. He was free from the stories of his mother. Free from the drugs that the social service system insisted he take. Free from having to behave in a socially acceptable way.
His freedom gives him his choices back and takes away his fer of judgement and not fitting in. Arthur chooses revenge, to hurt everyone who had hurt him. Even his mother, a woman he had been taking care of for decades, gets suffocated by him in the hospital. Slowly, Arthur morphs into the Joker.
Probably the most disturbing thing about him is his uncontrollable laugh. In the beginning of the movie, during one of his outbursts, he hands a card a to a woman on the bus. The card explains that the laughter is a psychological and neurological condition and that he doesn’t mean any offense by it. You can see Arthur trying unsuccessfully to control his outbursts. They happen at the most inconvenient times. When he’s asked to stop bothering someone’s child. When he’s seeing his social service worker. When he’s about to get beaten up on a train by three guys.
But as the film progresses, it becomes clear or at least heavily implied that the laugh is not a condition but just simply how Arthur is. His medication, though unable to stop the laughing outbursts, allowed him to realize how inappropriate it was. Off his medication, he luxuriates in the laughter. Understanding that it was not about suppressing pain or fear but about mocking the ridiculous, biased behaviour of Gotham society.
The laughing goes from pathetic and sad to powerful and commanding. Laughing under the most unusual circumstances sets him apart from everyone else.
There’s so much more than can be discussed about this movie. The repetition of the question ‘What’s so funny?’ by several people whenever Arthur starts one of his laughing outbursts. The way the film is shot also makes you feel like you’re literally right there with Arthur. Close-up shots and angles that feel raw and intimate. Close enough that the timing of Arthur/Joker’s explosive behaviour always manages to catch you unawares. And it’s his unpredictability and his no-fucks-given-attitude that makes him truly frightening.
Anyway, if you’ve watched it, let us know what you think! And if you’ve watched it in Singapore, do you think the NC16 rating was fair?
Image 1: imdb.com
Image 2: amazon.co.uk