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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Lockdown review - Joker


Directed by Todd Phillips (2019)

Batman is an awkward kind of super-hero. He wasn’t born super. He didn’t have super thrust upon him by some magical intervention. Unusually, he achieved super thanks to regular trips to the gym, some fancy gadgets and a shedload of inherited wealth by which he’s morally compromised from the off.

No amount of philanthropy can scratch the surface of either the tortured world that surrounds him or his fathomless fortune. It’s only the unalloyed badness of the fucked-up super-villains he confronts that justifies his vigilante arrogance and assures his moral superiority.

Which makes Joker a dangerous film indeed. At its violent climax Arthur Fleck, who has lately assumed the Joker persona, summarises the plot for the benefit of those who haven’t been paying attention:

“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fuckin’ deserve!

The previous couple of hours are a forensic analysis of what makes a man bad. Evil is not in the genes but amassed by increments: uncertain parenthood, childhood abuse, physical and mental affliction, beatings that continue into adulthood, deprivation, a broken welfare system and a gun. That’s all it takes.

Yet Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) is, himself, a carer. He looks after his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) to whom he’s devoted – until another increment is dealt and he smothers her with a pillow. Only then do we wonder whether he could have shown mercy. But none of us are perfect.

Early on, Arthur turns his back on the camera and we see the harm carved into his emaciated, warped body and we feel the horror, the threat, that Frankenstein must have felt when he looked on his creature. We made this. And once more America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

Phoenix uses his body as a narrative machine. What begins broken and bowed is healed and stretched as Arthur’s gathering madness fills his form with a new, confident identity. “I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it's a fucking comedy.”

He leaps and dances, performs Pierrot mime. The killing is his cure.

A cure for society, too. Comparisons are readily drawn with Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy but this more like another Scorcese film, Taxi Driver.

The bins are on strike in Gotham City and the rubbish is piling up on the streets, symbolising a deeper moral disorder, and when he looks in the mirror Arthur suddenly realises that he’s the solution as well as the victim.

The Taxi Driver (and the King of Comedy) was played by Robert DeNiro, which makes Arthur/Joker’s slaying of DeNiro’s parasitical chat show host Murray Franklin, a villain who feeds on ridiculing the vulnerable, a good movie joke.

It’s Murray who calls Arthur a “joker” as an insult, and Arthur assumes the identity and turns it around against him, asking who decides what’s funny and what’s not, who’s mad and who’s sane. Which is, of course, a question of power.

Crucially, Joker is not alone. He inspires an army of protesting clowns, themselves adopting an identity that can be an insult, and his war against the society that made him becomes a collective struggle.

Meanwhile, superhero-to-be Bruce Wayne is fleeing the resulting riot with his parents who, in that moment when Batman begins, are shot dead by an anonymous me-too clown.

The masked avenger’s lifetime mission to trump that joker originates not simply in a crime but in an act of vengeance itself. And the antagonist is not a bad individual but the representative of a multitude whose madness is defined only by a civilisation gone bad.

Not surprisingly, in these crazy days, the tune that plays over the closing credits is Send in the Clowns.

May 27, 2020

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