Written by Natalie Dennis, Mizzou student
Edited by Zack Hohenstein, E23 Digital Director

Spoilers Below

“Joker” (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, brings new insight to a notorious villain. The film allows for an inside look and new perspective to Joker’s pure madness and insanity. Joaquin Phoenix portrays Arthur Peck, a struggling clown for hire with aspirations of becoming a stand up comedian. As every minute passes, the audience pulls back more of the curtain to the reality, or potential reality, of Arthur’s life. To me, Phillips’ film is a staircase of emotion from start to finish, and leaves nothing but room for interpretation. 

Let’s start with the cinematography. It is unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years in a commercial production. The artistic style and attention to detail is evident in every scene. The opening scene alone reveals the personal story Arthur is about to share as he pulls his face into a smile so hard a tear falls, face painted with clown makeup. Not only does this imply how naturally unhappy Arthur is, but how far he’s willing to go to convince someone that he is. The intimate camerawork captures moments like these throughout the film. Observing his mental state deteriorate is something to appreciate in a filmmaking sense. Having an inside look at how Arthur sees his day to day interactions, how he feels himself reacting and what he wishes he could do is truly unique. The implication and uncertainty in this film constantly kept me on my toes, as a proper psychological thriller should. 

I think the “Bathroom Dance” scene was a modern day cinematic masterpiece. We are exposed to Peck in the immediate aftermath of him killing three innocent men. In what should be a nightmare, Arthur is disturbingly relieved. Even when “Joker” allows us to see Peck in his most vulnerable moments, he seems most happy in utter chaos. With his hands pressed to the door, Arthur finally relaxes. As the camera pans down, we see his feet cross as he begins to dance. The eery, orchestratic music flows perfectly with his slow motions. I interpreted this scene as Arthur expressing the closest thing to happiness he can feel, as he finally identifies himself as a villain. The dance serves as a true turning point in the film. Arms spread wide with pride, he finally sees who he is. The emotion in this scene feels intended, and insanely precise and precisely insane. To discover Phoenix and Phillips deviated from the script moments before the scene was shot makes the scene all the more intense, and chilling. Phoenix’s unadulterated emotion breaks through in a way that brings actor and character together to elevate the film. 

The use of stairs alone makes this film one I’ll remember. Through only two shots, Phillips illustrates Arthur’s mindnumbing routine of trekking up the stairs on his way to care for his nearly-senile mother.  The tilting camera angle and music do a powerful job depicting the weight he carries as he ascends up the stairs, and how truly miserable he is. However, to use the only shot of him going down the stairs with the infamous “Rock and Roll Part II” by Gary Glitter playing, presumably playing in his head as well, shows the physical and mental change Arthur is feeling. With the death of his mother, Arthur feels relieved as he expresses his true self. Arthur, hair dyed and face painted, strides down the stairs nailing every beat to the song as triumph overpowers him. This scene stands out as we truly see the Joker coming to light. His freedom of expression and release through the music is something the audience can connect with as we can feel the music inside him.

This film does a lot with open interpretation. The lines blur of what is real and not real in this story, as we are following an unreliable narrator. While I find this to be what makes this film such an experience and impactful story, it’s easy to understand how some audience members may become frustrated with the lack of definitiveness. While clarity in a story is important, a mysterious storyline works perfectly for this character. Arthur is just as confused about what is real and what isn’t to him. We’re just joining him for the ride.

Amongst being cut off from therapy, Arthur is also cut off from his medications. Already an unreliable narrator, anything Arthur does can easily be argued as a hallucination, or what he fantasizes his life to be. With the closing scene, he laughs hysterically as the nurse asks what is so funny. While he replies he was thinking of a joke, she asks if she could hear it. Arthur simply replies, “You wouldn’t get it.” This powerful line not only implies the mental disconnect he feels from society as a whole, but that she couldn’t possibly understand the story we had just been told. As “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra plays, the movie comes to an eerily satisfying close. As he lip syncs to the song we are hearing, we can see his now fully developed character.

“Joker” is a unique, personal look at the mind of a mentally ill villain, and allows the viewer to connect with him in a new way. Joaquin Phoenix demands the audience’s attention from start to finish, and never fails to be the utmost brilliant in performance. I fell in love with this film the moment it first started, and every run I’ve seen of it. It challenges the audience to listen to him and understand his side while not necessarily identifying with it. I find it holds the qualities of a beautifully developed, artistic film. I enjoy the mental spin and psychological twists the film provided, rather than being gore-oriented. This film is for film-goers that appreciate a film intended for individual interpretation and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get recognition come awards season.

Time to put on a happy face.

Rating: 4.5/5


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