**While I don’t believe there are any true spoilers, it is ill-advised to read this without having seen the film**
Send in the clowns
The curtain pulls back for Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) for his bucket-list-checking debut on the Murray Franklin Show, his favorite late-night program hosted namely by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Enter stage: Joker.
The film begins adequately nostalgic, with an introduction fit for the 1970’s and 1980’s, with the retro Warner Brothers logo, to the static-lined radio filling the emptiness of Arthur’s workplace vanity as he applies his patented white face paint in preparation for his daily routine as a clown-for-hire. The radio immediately allows us a grasp of the setting: Doomsday in Gotham City. Citizenry is in unrest, people are dissatisfied, and there’s a growing “anti-system” sentiment across the city.
Arthur is portrayed locked inside of a white room of an insane asylum, angrily banging his head against the small square window at eye level of the bolted door, containing this troubled man. However, it’s clear that Arthur has little to no desire to escape this room. He finds comfort there, as is iterated to the initial psychiatrist performing his weekly evaluations. He prefers to be in the room, rather than in the cold world which has betrayed him time and time again.
The cut to the white room is presented as a flashback, or brief cutaway from the real story. Though, there is certainly reason to doubt this and interpret the film as precisely the inverse. Todd Phillips carefully but obviously presents us with an entire subplot which rounds off as merely a figment of Arthur’s imagination, in the relationship that he forms with his neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). He clearly imagines this relationship with a woman with whom he has only briefly interacted once, because he strongly desires it. These episodes of their interactions about the town, in restaurants and at comedy clubs, are merely his own thoughts personified, because they bring him comfort, something of which he’s usually deprived. An escape from his personal hell.
Similar to one’s own dreams, there is a great confusion of the film’s setting, which oddly incorporates concepts spanning decades. This further pushes the idea that, essentially, most of this film is imagined by Arthur inside this locked room. How else could there be a protest taken straight from 2016, with vehicles from 1970, and a film showing (Modern Times) from 1936?
Joker is simply a look inside the mind of a mentally unravelling super villain in the making, a journey through the convoluted imagination of this deranged and forgotten man in a city of turmoil. It is easily imagined the slowly unwinding demise into violence which Arthur encapsulates in this world where he stands alone, devoid of companions and lied to by his deteriorating mother (Frances Conroy), who says to have only remembered young Arthur as smiling and always happy amidst her continued abuse of the child.
Todd Phillips makes careful note throughout the film to include precise monocles of Arthur’s enclosure in this room, as he is seen similarly banging his head against the windows and walls of a telephone booth, a divider inside the hospital, and elsewhere. These are simple and subtle reminders of Arthur’s confinement.
Physically, he is trapped and subdued by these tangible barriers and the unforgiving society, but mentally, he is a vagabond, imagining that same society, but by his own rules. One in which people like him are not forgotten. Where his life is not a tragedy, but a comedy.
No less, the film would not float on these concepts alone. Joker, lest I detract from its philosophical potentness, was one of the most visually and audibly sensational films in years. Joaquin Phoenix gave viewers a performance for the ages. Like his other feature films, he absolutely commanded the camera and dominated the screen. Every laugh, every joke, every look permeated the viewer. His ability to convey the mental descent of this troubled figure was nothing short of supernatural. This film was every bit a physical experience as it was emotional and mental, keeping you gripping the edge of your seat in anticipation, trying to predict only the most unpredictable.
This film gave us some of the highest and lowest of the Joker as a character, and certainly showed him at his most frightening. The camera work in this film is unparalleled, and only allowed by the bleakness of Arthur’s face and the deep emptiness of his eyes. Phoenix completely reinvented himself to play this character, and it showed. The Joker’s recognized makeup was taken from a barebones and polished approach with Arthur’s carefully geometric take on a clown mask. This plays comparatively to the dulled and worn façdade of Heath Ledger’s famous Joker from years past. Possibly most chilling, though, is particularly the shot of Arthur leaned against the wall of his apartment donning but a white primer cover of makeup in preparation for his appearance on The Murray Franklin Show, with bright red blood splattered indiscriminately across his face as if some nod to Phantom of the Opera. Though, numbing sights of Arthur up close and personal are not to be at the expense of those panning the details of his influence, with Gotham’s crescendo from a sobering dystopia into a revolutionized City on the Hill, with Joker at the helm.
Not enough can be said about the score of Joker, written and arranged by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. It was the score which first catches your attention, offering shades of its cousin film, The Dark Knight (2008), and its beautifully moving composition by Hanz Zimmer. Musically, Joker reminded us of the best that cinema has to offer in how music can be coupled with compelling visuals to elicit emotion and transcend the human experience. Powerful, chilling, and haunting at no expense of beauty. A steady heartbeat or footstep cadence undersetting the warlike symphonic cries of strings and deep brass. That same footstep cadence represents the famous view of the staircase throughout the film, allowing the symbolism of Arthur’s slowly drawn out descent into darkness and violence.
Given all of this, however, the main ingredient to this film was its soundtrack. So rigorously scrupulous, the stylings of Frank Sinatra reared their head in multiple instances throughout the film. Most notably was Phillips’ use of Sinatra’s hit, “That’s Life.” The upbeat tune with its jazzy organ-driven melody provided a bit of a catchphrase for Arthur that bookended the film, simply telling him: that’s life. Throughout, also utilized was Sinatra’s revered “Send in the Clowns,” because, well. Though, despite all this, one song’s usage stood out in particular. Towards the film’s end, Joker is being paraded through Gotham City, sat in the back of a police car, when the bombast of Cream’s operatic intro to “White Room” rang from the speakers with authority. Joker finally stands upon the hood of a car and looks about at what he’s created, with a smile on his face. Though, not before the scene turns to Arthur back in the white brick-lined asylum. Back in his white room, which he calls home.
“I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves
At the party she was kindness in the hard crowd
Consolation for the old wound now forgotten
I’ll sleep in this place with the lonely crowd
Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves”
–White Room, by Cream (1968)
Contributions by: @27xWSChamps, @aidosIaido, @AstrosRants