Although not without flaws, Joker is a visual masterclass in filmmakingDespite fears about Joker not being released in Nepal, the film finally made its way to theatres, serving as a lesson to both filmmakers and policymakers.
In June this year, the government announced that they were writing a new act to limit foreign film screenings in Nepal. While the media protested, fearing censorship, many mainstream Nepali film producers welcomed the idea. They argued that foreign films were hampering Nepali films and their ticket sales. This law hasn’t yet been enforced and even if it is, we’d adapt to it easily. For audiences, it will become a part of film-going culture, much like ‘smoking kills’ or ‘70 LAC people die from tobacco every year’ that splash on screen every time a character smokes.
But I was especially baffled by the number of young independent filmmakers who supported this idea. These were filmmakers who have been to prestigious film festivals and have seen how the system works. They cited the limited exposure of Hollywood and Bollywood in uplifting China’s cinema industry. Clearly, Nepali filmmakers are not thinking straight. If any government is given enough power to ban someone else’s film, then they won’t think twice about banning your film either.
The proposal already has foreign film distributors wary. New distribution companies won’t dare enter an unstable market, and the old guards who run the show now will play it safe. Limiting foreign films will invariably affect the quality. As is the trend today, studio films will be preferred over art-house indies and popular franchises over unique one-off stories. As a result, we’d get films like Angry Birds 2, Abominable, and Rambo: Last Blood, rather than Jordan Peele’s Us or Ritesh Batra’s Photograph or James Gray’s Ad Astra or even films in other languages.
For cinephiles in Nepal, Joker was a much-awaited film. But the trailers never played here and that was causing anxiety with audiences wondering if the film would ever play in Nepali theatres, especially given rumours of preference being given to a Nepali release over Joker. But with the film winning accolades at important festivals like Toronto and Venice, the film was gaining a reputation as the must-see film of the season. Despite a will-they or won’t-they situation, Joker was finally released in theatres.
Joker is a character study of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). It is 1981 and Fleck lives in Gotham city, supporting his deranged old mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). His mother calls him Happy, and that’s his mission in life—to bring joy and laughter to everyone. Arthur works as a clown, putting on makeup, forcing a smile, and doing menial work like holding up signs for money.
Fleck’s biggest struggle, besides his poverty, is his struggle with mental illness. He sees a city-assigned counsellor and takes pills in the hopes of keeping his uncontrollable laughter in check, but nothing seems to work. Fleck laughs and he does so in the most awkward of situations, making people around him very uncomfortable.
Despite all this, Arthur has big ambitions. He’s researching to become a standup comedian and his hero is Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host who he’s never met. Fleck has imaginary conversations with his hero, where he imagines being told, “I’d give the show up in a heartbeat to have a kid like you”.
Co-writer and director Todd Philips dedicates the first half of the film to portraying Fleck as someone who desperately wants to fit into the system. Then, in the second half, Fleck transforms into a psychotic rebel, fighting that very system. He does so out of anger and not for any political motivation. Fleck’s reasoning is that he is crazy enough to do so. In one of the final jokes of the film, he says, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill man with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you deserve.”
Fleck’s journey is that of bad luck, humiliation, and rejection. He is betrayed by own mother, rejected by his biological father, his relationship with his girlfriend turns out to be imaginary, and even his hero Murray laughs at his expense. Fleck goes on a downward slope with insanity as his ultimate way out. Things then take a turn for the worse and Fleck begins killing people. He first kills in self-defence. Then, he kills anyone who has ever rejected him. In the process, he accepts his insanity and gains a following. The people of Gotham City christen him as their saviour.
Philips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher present a visual masterclass in Joker. The audience is made to feel Fleck’s confinement right from the opening shot, where the city of Gotham towers over Fleck. The filmmakers frame buildings, alleyways, rooms, telephone booths, window grills, and even wallpaper in such a way that they all feel confining, suffocating. Fleck gets beaten in an alleyway with buildings for walls. In another alleyway with tall buildings, Fleck lashes out in anger at a garbage bag. And his first murder takes place inside a metal box. When Fleck breaks his barriers and comes out of a boxed elevator, he transforms into the Joker.
In the past, the character of the Joker in the film has always been an over-the-top rendition of a comic book character. In 1989’s Batman, Jack Nicholson falls into toxic waste to turn into an atypical comic book villain. Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad was campy, weird, and unnecessary to the film itself. The only film that has treated this character as a person was The Dark Knight, under Christopher Nolan’s direction 11 years ago. Heath Ledger’s Joker was unpredictable and hence, menacing. His chaos was believable. However, Joaquin Phoenix’s rendition of Joker is not any of the above. The penultimate scene of the film culminates in the whole city donning the mask of the Joker. The filmmakers seem to suggest that maybe everyone in the earlier Joker films were copycats of this original Joker.
Phoenix’s Joker is not a comic-book over-the-top character. You can sense a 70s Hollywood new wave loner in his rendition. Here is a man who has his own set of problems and reacts to society accordingly. He is someone who practices his big moment in front of a mirror before going on to express how he feels. Phoenix performs the character with charm. He certainly looks the part, with massive weight loss, and when he dances like no one is watching, we feel him. There are moments where the audience is spellbound, marvelling at his performance.
Joker is certainly a re-watchable film, especially for its cinematography and the lead actor’s performance. However, the film is not without problems. It attempts to spoon-feed you what’s going on with this man. For example, the text, ‘I just hope my death makes more cents than my life’ appears so many times that it is almost a motif. There isn’t much for the audience to speculate on because all relevant information and even emotion is handed out, either through writing from Fleck’s journal or through dialogue. And in scenes where the filmmakers can’t use dialogue, they go out of their way, and in contrast to their established style, to use a flashback.
The script too follows a rather redundant pattern—Fleck tries hard, Fleck is unsuccessful; Fleck tries harder, Fleck is humiliated.
The filmmakers, and especially Joaquin Phoenix, are very sincere in their work but we have seen better renditions of the big city loner who goes into a downward spiral, like with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
In its entirety, this film could serve as inspiration for Nepali filmmakers. Todd Philips, once known primarily for The Hangover series, is now a director with awards from prestigious film festivals, along with massive commercial success. He proves that you don’t need to sacrifice one for the other, you can have both.
Joker nearly fell prey to a threatening new Nepali rule. The story of a lonely and desperate man would have been suppressed by a flawed system. If it had gone unreleased, the film’s fate would have embodied the very idea that the titular character of the film revolts against. In any case, Nepali cinephiles would’ve watched this film. But a film like Joker is designed to be experienced in a theatre. Hopefully, Nepali film and policymakers can both learn and grow.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro
Director: Todd Philips
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
Stars: 4 out of 5