He’s nobody to whom people neither listen nor talk. He’s alone, alone, alone, all alone on a wide gaping sea of people who continuously berate the person and the dream and the existence of himself ruthlessly. Francis Bacon’s phrase of ‘Magna Civitas magna solitude’ befits no less apposite than the case of Arthur Fleck, a man trying so hard but futilely to preserve a sense of purpose and a tenacious grip on social recognition at the bottom rung of social hierarchy that the goddess Fortuna seems to vent her usual aeonian capricious nature on the fate of this unfortunate man whose Wheel of Fortune is destined to be positioned to True North of Tragedy. If this sounds maudlin enough to frown over that “just a movie” façade, then think of what Charlie Chaplin elegantly sums up thus: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” This is a life of Arthur Fleck, and it is here where he becomes Joker, the archenemy of Batman and the good citizens of Gotham City. It all begins here in ‘Joker’ magnificently directed by Todd Phillips, who seems to have an eye for the absurdities and hypocrisies in our society.
A prequel to the Batman series, this film introduces the audience with a neorealist approach as seen in documentary films about the man behind the famous grinning clown mask and his rebirth as Joker in Gotham City, where he was born, raised, and bullied horridly every single day of his very thin life. Arthur Fleck is said to be mentally insecure, seeing a social worker every week who only cares about her civic duty to talk but not listen, so that he can get his usual five different psychotic medications. He is conditioned to be mad, said to be mad, and believed to be mad amid the licensed incivilities of the city by which this existence seems to be no regard for anybody unless he is a victim of harrowing bullying and taunting for his bouts of uncontrollable laughers and gawkish rail thin appearance in which his pierce blue eyes are the only resilient torches of his soul that defy the injustice and humiliation by society. It is in fact the society that slowly maddens Arthur with those multiple chemical prescriptions, willful neglect of his presence, and manifest disrespect of his social status as a hardscrabble, social-service dependent eking out his living as a part-time sandwich man and a carpe diem comedian whose livelihood depends on the whims and caprice of an inconsiderate employer and a knavish co-worker who uses Arthur for his advantages. Must I chant his litany of woes further?
The clown mask of Arthur Fleck becomes his persona that gives him a new personality with a sense of empowerment by freeing him from conscience in the heat of passion. According to the ancient Greek thespian idea of drama, the tragic actors were heavily disguised with a religious purpose in honor of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, for the actor was to give up his identity to let another (i.e., the mask character) speak and act through him. In this regard, Arthur’s clown face betokens his suppressed self, drenched in vindication against the tyranny of societal conformity that allows no place for anyone like him. It’s certainly a tragedy in a sense that the painted mask becomes paradoxically his real character that imbues people with fearful attention to him not the real bare face of the man. The Joker face is now an ‘Eat this’ defiance to the hypocrisies and absurdities of so-called equalitarian society that slights his existence as a person. As Melphomene, the muse of tragedy, is portrayed as wearing a mask of sadness and a buskin, Arthur Fleck wears a clown mask with a buskin hiding his tears from his heart. The uncontrollable bouts of his laughter are in fact a cry of his wretched soul.
At the heart of this film lies a heartfelt performance of actor Joachim Phoenix, who is said to have lost about fifty-two pounds in response to the director’s request to portray the linchpin as a very thin man to render his vulnerability and alienation from people. The dedication to the character that is never easy to play shines through Phoenix’s stellar performance on the screen that looks so realistically touching that it pains my heart to follow through the life of Arthur Fleck oozing out insurmountable pathos, and that even his chain smoking is deemed less toxic and vice-signaling. We see him alone in his apartment, on the bus, and on the street even among the crowd. We see him slowly abandoning himself to a bottomless pit of despondency as the world around him, including his mother, shuns him from the humanity. Surely, his crime is to be condemned, but as in the cases of Raskolnikov and Silas Marner, is this not a man who is more sinned against than sinning? Joker is a kind of movie that makes you go thinking after the lights are on.