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Movie Review: 'Joker' Doesn’t Erase the Villain’s Backstory

The film has been derided for being an 'incel training manual'.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill, impoverished man living with his mother, wants to become a stand-up comic. The year is 1981, the city Gotham, a decaying, decadent mess, whose walls are vandalised, roads littered with trash, and pavements stacked with garbage bags.

Gotham seems to have given up, its varying stages of dejection evident in different quarters. The city’s residents aren’t any better, either. Harassing and assaulting, they’re one nudge away from causing a huge catastrophe. Arthur has to live with these people: endure their insults, impress them, and try not to kill them.

Gotham has no place for someone like him — a socially awkward man who laughs, at most inappropriate moments, with the sadness of a self-pitying loner; on better days, he smiles like a sheepish teenager. In the absence of any meaningful relationship — he has no friends; his mother is bed-ridden and delusional — he turns to his diary.

“I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore,” reads one of his entries.

Another one states, “The worst part of having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” He visits a therapist regularly but, as the city withdraws that funding, his only link to sanity is snapped. Arthur is truly alone now, ready to consume — and be consumed by — the city.

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The people of Gotham have nothing but scorn for him: he’s taunted by his boss; beaten up by strangers; and ridiculed by a famous talk show host, Murray (Robert De Niro).

Some tormented individuals take refuge in art, giving themselves one final chance. But Arthur — whose deep-seated malaise sinks his comedy instead of uplifting it — can’t open that door, either. The tragedy of ‘misunderstood’ men — it’s nearly always men — is that they expect the world to compensate for what they lack. Gotham, though, is whispering something else, “We are in it together” or “they are not different than you”.

Joker, directed by Todd Philips, is starkly different from many movies in the genre. It doesn’t erase the villain’s backstory — doesn’t pretend as if it’s not important — rather makes you stay with him, forces you to see, and see through, his vanishing breadth of humanity.

It makes thematic sense, too: the perils of alienation are central to the movie. Audiences hating it for what it is — the film has already been derided for being an “incel training manual” — seems like an extension of the world Philips wants to dissect (Joker is yet to release in the US).

But perspective is not the same as sympathy or justification, and existence doesn’t necessarily equal negation — A can exist, and so can B. That is the nature of people — contradictory, elusive, and (at times) evolving — eschewing the narrative neatness that impassioned columnists and movements seek. Philips, along with co-screenwriter Scott Silver, makes it amply clear who Arthur is: a violent man, a talentless comedian, and an unfortunate son. It’s probably the most sensible way of telling a story about a man gone insane.

Philips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher ensure that Joker’s a tough, bleak watch. The camera is often a fidgety, anxious presence around Arthur; many scenes are low-angle shots, giving this thriller a disorienting, discomfiting feel. It’s also complemented by sharp production design — the rotting city, the sordid homes are imagined with unwavering precision.

The film’s centrepiece, Phoenix, has a reputation for playing unhinged characters. His unique vocabulary in such a realm — most evident in The Master (2012) — brings alive the most disturbed men. His performance in Joker is a similar significant feat, like watching a hot knife melt a block of butter, where both of them are parts of the same person. The butter needs to be sliced first — the complete obliteration of self — before the knife can stab the world.

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The movie, however, is far from perfect. Philips repeatedly hammers the same point when just once was enough (Gotham’s declining fortunes, for instance, are relayed several times through a news anchor on TV — a tired trope in itself). For a movie tackling a subject as bleak as this, Joker feels monotonous in parts.

It’d have benefitted from some morbid humour, evidenced in that memorable scene where Arthur murders one ex-colleague but lets the other one go. Sequences exemplifying the apathy of society — and a key flashback in the climax — are too on-the-nose, ill at ease with the rest of the movie.

Lampooning and isolating gawky men, suggests Joker, may not be the best way to tackle their potential viciousness. Philips asks an age-old, yet pressingly relevant, question: How should we treat disastrously imperfect men in a markedly imperfect society?

A society making rules on the fly, disregarding consistency, still figuring out its modes of punishment. One film, of course, can’t answer that, for there are enough individuals that lack remorse and shrug accountability (a fact that is applicable to Arthur and not ignored by Joker).

No one has the answer. Joker at least doesn’t pretend.