Joker follows the story of Arthur Fleck – a misfit singleton who lives with his mother. On the surface, Arthur’s childlike in both speech and demeanour. He’s desperate to gain the affection of the wider world – and therein lies tragedy. He works for minimum wage as a jobbing clown for an agency whilst acting as carer to his frail mum at home.
He supposedly has a condition whereby his outward expressions don’t match his inward moods, and hands out cards to commuters outlining this when he succumbs to uncontrollable laughter in public – something that happens when he’s nervous.
Right from the outset, we pity him, his situation, and the mental illness he lives with. But instinctively, we also want to move to a seat further away on the bus from him. You can sense that there’s something else under the grease paint waiting to claw through – Joaquin Pheonix’ expert portrayal makes sure of that.
There’s as much to witness in the gaze of Phoenix’ stare as there is in the aerial wide-shots of Gotham (a stand-in for New York since 1939). The camera draws in on his face however much you’d like it to actually retreat – in case you’re pulled right into Fleck’s debility. Empathy with a character turning evil is an uncomfortable place for the viewer.
Somehow, he emotes in such a way you see the impending fate plotted out in the subtle changes of his expression – the glare and hold of his pupils, the bearing of his imperfect teeth, the hungry draws on his cigarette.
We’re subjected to both agoraphobia and claustrophobia in this movie – often back to back. The former is the sweeping vistas of Gotham, using the widest lenses possible. The latter, the narrow streets, pokey rooms, flickering train carriages and filthy intersterces of the city. We feel like the rodents reported on local news in its screenplay.
Camera shots creep voyeuristically through monochrome apartments like an endoscope through a rat-run. Every dwelling has thin walls. Above the city, a thousand ventilation fans reverberate, dogs bark from distant blocks, cars honk and there’s always an emergency siren on the brink of hearing. Underneath, metro trains rumble. The sky stays opaque, indifferent.
Everything that can go wrong happens to Arthur, and things that are unthinkable happen too – seemingly to toast his devastation. He is neglected and bullied.
Each time Arthur gets kicked by life and circumstance, the strained soundtrack swells like a hammer striking iron; it’s the sonor of fear – an alarm bell warning us of what he’s becoming. The visual angles rotate accordingly – so down becomes up and above is below – reflecting Fleck’s descent into madness, and simultaneously, his rise up into glory.
What we watch is Joker’s pupation from his larval stage to the form he’ll eventually assume. At one point, he appears with his clown paint half-complete. He is without expression like a blank white canvas – a sign he’s shedding his former self and ditching the attached vulnerability.
But what is he turning into? We’re reminded of a chrysalis breaching and a nymph emerging – pale to the light – wings still wet but with the old host body discarded.
The white face scene is more tense and disturbing than anything jump-scares or CGI could ever offer up. The fact that dark humour is woven organically into moments like this makes it even more taxing for us to know which feeling to express. Within that frame, suspense and terror somehow splice with comedy, kindness, and even compassion. It genuinely takes a toll because we have to keep changing gear emotionally.
The more chaos reigns, the more yogic and composed the erstwhile Arthur becomes. Down everlasting steps – a shot already iconic – a newly-confident being dances gracefully, violently and jerkily. It goes from ballet to hoof kicks, Qigong to the Waltz, and from mime to humping the air so agressively it’s as though it’s thrusting into god’s fundiment. It’s humanity in all its permutations at once, breaking free from its former trappings.
Colour explodes into this film and into Arthur’s evolution – and in the most visceral way. The conversion – a passion of the Christ conclusion – showcases this creature in its final resplendant grace. It anoints itself with its own blood and confirms a symbol to its disciples: the smile.
The movie starts with the hue of concrete, grey skies, chipboard, black and white TV and tarmac. It ends with sumptuous primary tones – mostly red. Arthur has finally been coloured in like a portrait – achieved by fate and his own desperate clutches.
The combination of direction – from the bird’s eye to the porous, the steady flab-free plot which is character-driven, and Joaquin Phoenix pulling off one of the most enthralling acting performances of modern cinema – makes Joker a masterpiece of the art.