No one’s laughing now: The artistic merit of Todd Phillips’ Joker
By Dag Sødtholt, Feb 9, 2020 31 min read
This article spoils the entire plot of the film.
My way into Joker (2019) was guided by an instant empathy and identification with Joaquin Phoenix‘s lead character and, not least, how he is inhabiting the role in almost superhuman fashion. But my appreciation is certainly not limited to that. Digging deeper into the film reveals a strong structural presence of visual motifs and echoes, the subject of this article.
The dreamlike, associative nature of such recurring items is highly appropriate for a story about someone with a tenuous grip on reality. In the Joker universe one can never be certain that everything seen is really happening. In fact, a fascinating thematic aspect is the way Arthur Fleck’s daydreams and increasingly bizarre hallucinatory/psychotic episodes invade the outer world and bend it to reflect his nihilism.
“I’m not supposed to have a gun.” At this point, Arthur is still meek and even very sensible, brushing away a violent attack with: “It was just a bunch of kids. I should have left it alone.”
Todd Phillips‘s film is about a person suffering terribly but who nevertheless for a long time tries to do the right thing. He lovingly cares for a sick mother, delights in making kids laugh, and protests when given a gun for future protection after a brutal assault. This basically innocent person depends on a small handful of things to keep going. But when he discovers that all of those turn out to be illusory – or in one case, the very thing that has denied him a meaningful life all his years – he loses belief in anything. The point-of-view of the film dissolves, like his identity, into total meaninglessness, where whether he, or anyone, lives or dies does not matter.
One primary value of Joker is the utterly convincing and empathetic portrayal of Arthur’s trajectory. Not least, after having seen him suffer blow after blow, we can perfectly identify with the moment when the fusion of inner despair and outer fear of yet again be victim to severe bodily harm makes him fight back. He guns down all of his three attackers on the subway. A scene that starts as understandable self-defence, however, ends with outright assassination. Joker is also a striking demonstration of the instant empowerment that guns can give for the helpless, and how initial seduction easily spirals into excess. As the film progresses and Arthur starts to increasingly embrace violence, our identification with him goes from warm to something more temperate. His actions are still understandable, but as he allows his Joker persona full reign, we do not fully inhabit him any more. We become observers of his mayhem but are nevertheless able to feel its seductive pull.
There is a projected second article about Joker, which among other things – exploring Arthur’s personality and the film’s interplay between fantasy and reality – will delineate some references to other films. Since this topic has already generated a lot of discussion, however, let me offer some general comments already here. (Speaking of other articles, I can recommend Brecht Andersch‘s passionate “Joker and its discontents“.)
Joker is perhaps the best film since The Shining (1980) to demonstrate the utter exhilaration of giving in to all your worst impulses and say goodbye to every single restraint of society and morality to limit our behaviour. Joker‘s case of the charms of an evil hero is also related to A Clockwork Orange but its trajectory is opposite: in the earlier film the anti-hero starts out as wholly evil but elicits some sympathy towards the end as a helpless victim of a society that in its own way is as evil as him.
The fact that Joker makes a great effort explaining the protagonist’s background as well as the inner and outer forces that make him turn evil constitutes an enormous difference with the Kubrick films, however, as well as with the two Scorsese works that are constantly brought up, often seeking to belittle Phillips’s film and paint him as an inferior imitator: Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982). It cannot be denied that he is in some aspects leaning very close to these brilliant films, so his audacity is breathtaking. Pulling it off is even more so, and as the second article will show, virtually every “loaned” element is taken in a varying direction or given different emphasis.
The protagonists of Taxi Driver and Joker are walking in slow motion towards a stationary camera, even with matching jackets, both in public places. The context is very different though.
The enigma of Travis Bickle, who is also much more well-functioning and less obviously mentally ill than Arthur Fleck, and especially the caricature Rupert Pupkin, not at all a fully rounded character but a construct for exploring unbridled narcissism and ambition, represent very different approaches to characterisation than Joker. Also, the tones are very different. The King of Comedy is a fleet-footed satire. Taxi Driver has a much more lyrical approach to portraying the big city, a more relaxed pacing, and often lets scenes play out searching for “the truth of the moment”, for example the breakfast between Travis and Iris, and when Travis is seeking psychological advice from Wizard, his out-of-depth driver colleague. In comparison, the mood of Joker is highly oppressive, scenes are generally brisker and more to-the-point as efficient cogs in the larger picture, in a plot that is considerably more event-filled. And where Taxi Driver, even with its lyrical passages, is filmed largely in a “naturalistic” mode, Joker‘s cinematography is more deliberately composed and stylised, with recurring elements like the corridor motif, that encourage symbolic interpretations that may lift the story to a higher level of fable or myth.
It is not as if Phillips is using the earlier works as crutches to bestow a higher importance to his own film either. There are many deft allusions that are invisible to anyone not knowing the previous films very well, like the two slow motion scenes in the montage further up, or the below exquisite incorporation of a fleeting moment in The King of Comedy into the very last seconds of Joker:
When Rupert Pupkin has invaded the premises of the talk show organisation, there is an amusing, silent-movie-like, extended shot where he is seen intermittently through a doorway being chased first in one direction and then in the other one by several pursuers. In a similarly composed shot, Arthur Fleck is chased in the same way, by a single pursuer. The transplantation of this idea seems to subtly underline Joker’s philosophy that his life has now become nothing but a comedy.
At one point Arthur apparently invades a neighboring apartment and kills Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a lone mother whom he has fantasised is his girlfriend. In the following I will describe this incident as such. Joker’s many fascinating ambiguities however include the fact that it is rather an open question whether that really happened. We never see the actual killing. It is never referred to in any way later in the film. The detectives chasing him later are likely doing this because his murder of his clown colleague Randall (Glenn Fleshler), just before, has been reported to the police by the witness to the crime. The only indicators that he killed Sophie are a threatening gesture at the scene’s precise cut-off point, and the thundering music and his ominous posture as he is moving through the corridor afterwards. Although there is a certain sobriety to the tone of the apartment scene that indicates otherwise, still this could be a fantasy. (This will be further explored in the second article.)
Introduction to motifs and echoes
This is the last two occurrences of the corridor motif, setting up the future nemeses of Batman and Joker through compositions and proximity of narrative. The violence of the dead bodies is reflected in Arthur’s bloodied footsteps from the possible murder of the psychiatrist. The brick pattern of the alley also returns. Otherwise, there are a number of opposites: darkness vs light; characters frontal vs turned away; standing still vs moving; messy surroundings vs sterility; the camera pulling away from Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) but following Arthur Fleck. (The corpses in the alley echo the black garbage bags, marking the fall of the affluent class.)
The murder scene echoes another alley, additionally connected by a similar odd angle, where Arthur was attacked by the hoodlums. But whereas a clown was the victim earlier, a man in a clown mask is now the perpetrator – seen as a shadow on the wall here – inspired by the rise of the former victim, Arthur Fleck.
Both situations end with the camera pulling away, in the process emphasising fields of emptiness. More about the corridor motif here.
There is an even more prominent motif of very intense light. As Arthur leaves the clown company for good, relieved and much more assertive after having killed the three Wall Street guys, he is dancing into blinding light. After having executed his mother (Frances Conroy) he is basking in the rays from the window. Finally, he is dancing himself into the last seconds of the film enveloped by the intense glow at the end of the mental hospital corridor.
Light also subtly links Bruce Wayne’s two scenes. The brightness is ominously overwhelming outside the cinema before his parents are killed, but lights, much more discreetly, mark his first appearance too.
Lights are still prominent, in oneiric patterns, in the next cinema shot, before they enter the darkness of the alley. In fact, one purpose of the film’s many low-angle shots may be to deliberately include light sources, as we shall see when the light motif is further investigated.
Joker is also rich in meaningful echoes. The shots opening the two restroom scenes strikingly compare class distinctions, from the dingy, dirty place where Arthur hides after the subway killings, to the opulence at Wayne Hall. Both scenes start with mirror shots, captured at a similar angle and with a human figure nearly identically placed. Their endings are diametrical opposites: the first one with Arthur entering his first megalomaniacal state, the second with the crushing of his hope that Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is his rich father.
His end point postures too could not be more different. The first scene has the additional structural harmony that it starts and ends with a mirror shot, but in the second one he is shut out of the mirror.
No more Mr. Nice Guy! A bittersweetly resonant and subtle echo. First the loving son is clutching his mother’s pillow tormented by the fact she lies hospitalised with a stroke. Later he has turned into a ruthless avenger suffocating her with a pillow. Not only has he learned she is not his mother, but she has been exploiting his devotion all his life, robbing him of an existence as an independent person. She has also allowed, and maybe even participated in, horrible childhood abuse, the likely root of his mental illness, the memory of which he seems to have suppressed.
Three scenes form a chain: with the social worker and another authority figure, the hospital psychiatrist seen in the epilogue. All three situations start with a tight close-up of a laughing Arthur – momentarily hiding his surroundings, letting us be part of his overwhelming self-absorption – and his opponent is often shot over his shoulder.
Further reinforcing the echo, the rooms are remarkably alike, down to the contours and indentations of the walls, with for example the observation window having replaced a notice board. The lamps are virtually identical too.
There is another “observation window” in the Fleck apartment, from the kitchen into the living room. In one scene, where Arthur accidentally fires his new gun, it is twice functioning exactly as such, plus adding visual distinction.
One example on a minute level: the time seems always to be 11:11 in this film! (1) The mini-flashback to Arthur’s earlier hospitalisation; (2) the first social worker scene, from where that flashback is invoked; (3) “punching out” after having been fired. More about echoes here.
Part I: Motifs
This motif emphasises the trajectory of the film as something inevitable and preordained, while also providing it with a series of visually pleasing, “clean” symmetrical shots, which also encourage symbolism and metaphors.
Summing up the earlier-mentioned central corridor/alley shots.
Here is the motif “writ large”, first when Arthur is stalking his neighbour to work, and then during the subway action scene where the detectives are chasing Arthur amidst a throng of clown-masked demonstrators.
A third time, while the ambulance is racing Arthur’s stroke-afflicted mother to hospital, first dwelling on the empty tunnel before the vehicle enters the shot, thus reinforcing the purity of the motif.
This corridor, connecting the apartments of the Flecks and the neighbour, will be intensely fetishised…
…in no less than five scenes: (1) after Arthur has encountered Sophie in the elevator; (2) while on his way to her apartment after the subway killings; (3-4) before and after he has killed her; (5) on his way to conquer the world in full Joker mode. A similar passage and movement are found (6) when he is about to launch his stand-up routine at the comedy club.
The scene where Arthur is engaging with, and escaping from, the filing clerk about his mother’s patient records is intensely corridor-driven, and his frantic run through various passages is dwelt upon at length.
Some related visual figures: (1) in an early scene on his way to the pharmacist; (2) escaping from the subway killings; (3) the red carpet “corridor” outside the cinema near the end; (4) on his way to the talk show after the subway riot.
In the very last shot of the Arthur-Bruce scene outside Wayne Manor the camera is pointed directly along the road to the building.
At yet another low point, after having been humiliated and disbelieved by his boss, Arthur finds himself in yet another garbage-infested alley. The train passing by in the distance can be taken – he is looking up, acknowledging it – as foreshadowing of his later turning point. And in this film, what else is a subway car than a moving corridor, hurtling along towards a literally preordained destination?
An instantly memorable feature of Joker is this flight of stairs, which at an early point he is climbing, walking stiffly after the attack from the sign-stealing youngsters, in laboured movements that convey the essence of his whole damned existence. Soon, they appear again, with him higher up, as if the film’s early parts are one long struggle, an unending slog:
…but this more acute angle fully reveals the stairs to be part of the corridor motif. His dancing at the film’s very end forms a stark contrast to the earlier toiling figure, the lamps along the stairs puny compared to the concluding celestial light.
In fact, after that last upward climb, he starts to descend stairs instead – not only that, but these are some of his happiest occasions, not walking but dancing in celebration: having won freedom after having been ejected from the clown company, and having fully embraced his Joker persona.
There is one exception, however, a neutral situation, balanced by the up-and-down stairs in consecutive shots: a momentary oasis where he is allowed to share the festive occasion and forget his troubles, watching the silent film screening.
There is another low point: after having read his mother’s case file, he is at a dead end, against the wall – and this last shot of the scene reveals that not only the pipes and railings but the whole staircase has the same colour as the case folder, a subtle visual complement to his overwhelmed state because of its disastrous content. (The tilted camera is reminiscent of the alley shots.)
Just for the sake of completeness, here are the other stairs (running from the murder scene, escaping the police detectives), which as part of frantic action have less symbolic value. (Although it could be significant that the third victim is shot at the bottom of a staircase.)
Light is so pervasive in Joker that it is almost as if the source at the end of the corridor in the finale – fittingly, a single, majestically long take, its 67 seconds only beaten by the 71-second shot kicking off Arthur’s stand-up performance – is regularly penetrating the fabric of the rest of the film, for example when Arthur opens the door to the street. We also see in the above montage that the camera itself is inexorably pulled towards that light.
The top image shows the start of the shot where he looks down at his last subway victim. The light just over his head, which also gives him a dramatic halo, and the later feverish blobs of light – augmented by the ringing in his ears – of course convey his shock and state of hyper-alarm, but this is also part of a broader pattern.
With the benefit of having digested the film’s entire pattern of luminescence, the tiny lights outside his apartment building in this early scene seem almost mocking…
…while afterwards he fantasises about being in the limelight on the talk show hosted by his hero Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro)…
…where even their embrace moves him towards the light. The cut back to Arthur is telling and quietly resonant. Having turned off the lights, his only hope and spiritual nourishment in life seem to come from the slight glow of the TV, but whereas he looked reasonably healthy on the show, upon return here he comes across as an old man, his face lined and drawn. (His mother in the background, made slightly unreal because of defocus, is subtly complementing and echoing his fantasy father figure.)
When he is suffocating his mother, at the exact point of her death – we hear the flatlining signal from the monitoring equipment – the already otherworldly light from the window is intensified further, with flares to boot.
Afterwards, he stands basking in the light, as if having found fulfillment.
After having had trouble imagining himself as a participant on the talk show, his fantasising kicks, and the scene concludes with him caught in a beam of light. His wild dance in the bathroom just afterwards is likewise illuminated.
While being taken away by the police after his trail-blazing talk show appearance, the car is awash in all kinds of light…
…and highly significant for this pattern, he is “killed” by a massive amount of light, from the ambulance crashing into the police car. (Ironically, the accusatory remarks from the driver saved his life, since he moved away from the window to reply – while the policemen themselves were killed.)
Afterwards, his “resurrection” takes place bathed in light, also prominent in later shots of the scene.
This earlier scene too, as the Joker persona moves out into the world along the corridor and into the elevator, plays on his interactions with light sources. The last pose is made even more iconic.
Earlier, light sources are very important during his stand-up effort.
Thomas Wayne’s first appearance in the film is celebrated by overwhelming window light, with extra intensity of feeling from Arthur’s cigarette glow.
Another introduction scene: A major purpose for these low-angle shots seems to be to include the light source, significant here since this situation leads to Arthur starting to fantasise about his neighbour, who is also associated with light in the very first seconds of her appearance as she runs towards the elevator.
Low angles with dramatic lights: (1) realising Murray is making fun of him by showing his stand-up on the show; (2) with the file clerk and his mother’s case folder; (3 and 4) realising its horrific contents.
In a brilliant idea, Arthur is projected into the flashback where his mother’s case history is revealed, with an accusatory but resigned gaze at her. The psychiatrist interviewing her appears as a ghostly, ominous luminescence in the foreground.
Harmonious light: in the cinema, both projected and reflected from the screen.
Some “magical” light from the windows as Arthur is given the fateful gun and as he is dressed down by the boss.
In the one moment when the otherwise aloof and mechanical social worker is showing compassion and solidarity with Arthur – “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur” followed by (as the film cuts to Arthur) “and they really don’t give a shit about people like me, either” – she is honoured with this light.
Gunshots as light explosions as Wall Street guys and Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed.
In one of Joker‘s most extraordinary scenes, which might be wholly symbolical, Arthur empties the fridge, climbs in and shuts the door…! Is it the light from inside that draws him? (It will be extinguished, of course, as soon as the door is closed.)
There are so many roads that are paved with light in this film.
Dance is also deeply embedded in Joker, with its motivic origins in Murray’s routine of doing a small pirouette whenever the show’s signature tune is played – he is even performing dance motions if seated behind his desk – and Arthur’s prancing clown dance.
Arthur’s trance-dance, however, so important on his road to full transition into the Joker persona, is intimately connected to the gun. It first occurs in primitive form when he is fooling around with it, as if it commands him to move his emaciated body about.
This dance happens to the everyday sound from the TV, playing the song “Slap That Bass” from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937) – the presence of the famous dancer Astaire in the clip fits nicely into the motif – but this anchoring in “reality” has totally gone in the next major dance situation, one of the many brilliant scenes in Joker, this time too connected to the gun. Here the theme from Hildur Guðnadóttir’s mournful yet rousing score that accompanied Arthur’s humiliation in the alley returns but tempered with a suitably soothing aspect. Arthur has fled the crime scene in the subway to hide in a public restroom, and unable to cope with the murders he has committed, he escapes into a fully hallucinatory state, with serpentine movements of both body and camera, captured in three takes totalling (just over) one and a half minute.
First he is touching the door, keeping it shut but as the camera moves to linger on his arms we also have the feeling the grip is connecting him to reality. (Later, before the murder of Sophie, we see him touching various objects in her apartment in a related fashion.) But then the camera travels down his body, to reveal that his feet start moving, in complex steps, apparently of their own volition.
This slide show traces his enigmatic slow-motion dance…
…until it ends in this transcendent moment, his fear and hysteria fully transformed into peace and self-command. The mood continues afterwards, as he imagines himself entering the neighbour’s apartment, kissing her while she shuts the door with a balletic movement.
Along the way the presence of light is again noticeable; in this shot the tilted angle and mirror combine to capture all three sources.
Earlier we have seen his wild dance in the bathroom, and two occurrences of dancing down the stairs, the latter a hilariously silly and absurd set piece bursting upon an unsuspecting audience. Arthur has even danced with his half-asleep mother, elated after the imagined success at the stand-up club. One the rich guys sings “Send in the Clowns” and does a little pirouette around the subway pole grip as they start to torment him.
Before the talk show there is another extraordinarily beautiful scene. With the crew as bemused spectators, behind the curtain Joker embarks upon a more mysterious version of his earlier trance-dance, with hypnotic, ultra-slow, inhuman contortions, with the camera equally hypnotically pushing in. Note the carefully harmonious composition with the TV monitor and the mirror – with another strong light! – balancing the frame, in concert with the painstakingly symmetrical colours of the curtain.
Slide show of the backstage ballet.
On stage he easily outshines Murray’s pirouette with his own gracious and lithe version, to gasps from the audience. After his resurrection he is dancing for the rioters, and having reached the end of the last shot’s corridor he again engages in his dance routine.
The murders of Randall and Murray Franklin leave a burst of blood on the wall – with Randall’s looking like a disgusting, giant cockroach – and also on the hero’s face. (The last occurrence seems like artistic licence, unless some blood really managed to splatter back from the wall.) Notice that the emblematic figure of the show’s logo is smeared too.
The pattern continues, with Bruce Wayne’s face adorned with his mother’s blood.
In the climax Joker’s clown-smile make-up has been ruined but is replaced by his own blood.
This slide show proves Arthur’s immediate surroundings to be marked by arches: the apartment building’s entrances (arch within arch), hallway, corridor and also inside the apartment, including what serves as Arthur’s entrance when training for his talk show appearance. The “observation window” from the kitchen also has rounded edges. (The entrance to Sophie’s workplace too is an archway.)
This seems highly significant: the Flecks’ building and the mental asylum seem like different aspects of the same state, with the hospital serving as a longtime “home” in the mother’s past and in the hero’s past and future.
Something interesting happens after the execution of the last subway victim: as Arthur is escaping, three consecutive shots are dominated by arches…
…and later, arches can yet again be found in a cluster of three shots (although non-consecutive) before his invasion of Sophie’s apartment. Perhaps this is coincidence, but from an analytical standpoint an undeniable link between two situations of murder, and possible subconscious preparation of the viewer for the coming killing of Sophie.
Mother and son getting their heads together on each side of the bathroom door as he pulls out of her the story of her alleged romance with Thomas Wayne. The way Arthur leans against the door is in fact quite unsettling, considering his headwork in the rest of the film.
In the mini-flashback from his earlier hospitalisation at the asylum, called forth during his first meeting with the social worker, we see him excruciatingly banging his head forcefully against the door repeatedly.
When he struggles with the filing clerk about his mother’s case folder, he strikes his head against the meshing. (To get leverage by pushing against it as both of them were holding on to the folder? More likely trying to make the clerk let go of it because of the shock of this wild act.)
At the emergency ward he walks straight into a glass door, in a sudden eruption of absurd, almost slapstick humour. (This is probably the reason the mise-en-scène lets several people walk out of that door, to lead him to believe that the exit-only door would obey him too.)
This is the pièce de résistance of this motif, however, a fairy-tale-style shot of a mad clown cracking the window of the phone booth after being fired by his boss, metaphorically struggling to break out of his increasingly restrictive life. It also makes us immediately think of the asylum shot, warning us of an upcoming return to former madness. (The next scene is the subway murders.)
On this background, masked by the ferocious impact on us by Arthur’s smashing Randall’s head to a pulp against the wall, there is an underlying morbid, motivic logic to that action. (The “overkill” of the repeated head-smashing points back to him emptying his revolver into the third subway victim.)
There is a certain recurrence of barriers (bars or meshes): (1) the gate of Wayne Manor; (2) spying on Sophie; (3) the counter of the hospital filing clerk; (4) in the police car. Especially the latter two are used to great effect: at one point the meshing serves as a “focal point” framing a single eye (and in the last case an extremely shallow focus ensures that Joker’s mocking gaze stands out).
Finally, there is a short chain of an identical triumphant gesture: (1) during the birth of the Joker persona in his first full-fledged hallucination, or psychotic episode, in the restroom after the subway killing; (2) during his fantasy of great stand-up success (repeated in a clip on Murray’s show, exactly when Arthur says “no one’s laughing now”); and (3) intensely fetishised as the figurehead of the riot mob.
Part II: Echoes
One of Joker‘s most strongly marked echoes is three situations with someone lying down being brutally kicked. In the early scene Arthur meekly takes the beating from the hoodlums. On the subway the sheer humiliation and desperation of the recurring disaster makes him gun down the assailants. The last time, after having accidentally shot a bystander, it is now the two police detectives chasing him who are kicked, by members of the public, with Arthur as a gloating, dancing spectator, with the added poetic justice that it was their questioning that helped bring on his mother’s stroke.
There are a few verbal echoes, many of them meant to be consciously perceived as such by audiences. Before gunning down the Waynes the killer exclaims “you get what you fucking deserve”, a verbatim repetition of Joker’s scream before shooting Murray Franklin. During the show he exclaims “it’s been a rough few weeks” in an echo of his “I had a bad day” in Sophie’s apartment, in both cases as forewarnings of murder. (The latter is in turn a quote from Alan Moore‘s 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke“: “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”) After having been confronted about the deadly consequences of his actions first by Murray and then the policemen transporting him, Joker simply retorts “I know”, in a proud and mocking tone.
Both of Arthur’s father figures, Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne, are often using the mock-chummy expression “pal” – and it is virtually Wayne’s last word in life – in addition to both being affluent, look-alikes, and introduced in the film on TV.
On the visual side there are many other, more subtle, echoes, however. In the following we are going to look at a few, roughly organised by an increasingly narrow time lapse between the points.
The opening and closing shots are captured with a slow forward camera movement, with the hero turned away from us, in situations marked by an increasingly prominent presence of light.
Arthur’s head leaning against the window of a bus and a police car in echoing compositions, gloomy after the first meeting with the social worker, and in custody after killing Murray, about to get a boost by discovering the riots.
Joker’s moment of triumph achieves added resonance by his stiff, lopsided posture, which echoes the early sequence of Arthur hobbling along to his apartment. In both cases his body is half-broken after the kicking from the sign stealers and having survived the police car crash.
There are two altercations in subway cars, one almost empty, the other overwhelmingly full. Both situations start with physical violence and end with gun shots.
Arthur’s panicked escape after the subway killings is in marked contrast to a supremely collected Joker after the second subway incident, looking calmly into the camera, in slow motion as if underlining his confidence.
Arthur’s book with his personal journal and joke ideas is reflected in his mother’s hospital folder. Both are “case histories” and will complement each other. His own book is deeply personal, the hospital folder is the key to his mental illness and entire personality. Their colours are matching: his book brownish red, his mother’s folder red.
Talk about a smile not reaching the eyes! As Arthur leaves for good after having been fired from the clown company he is altering the sign to “Don’t smile!” This is not just a random act reflecting his generally unpredictable behaviour, but a specific answer to the end of his previous scene at the company. Being humiliated by his disbelieving boss about the sign incident, Arthur’s smile gets broader and more strained – “grinning and bearing it” – as if he is forcing himself to live up to a company policy of cheerfulness. Also, this is yet another yellow sign being vandalised.
That previous scene was followed by Arthur kicking wildly at the garbage overwhelming the city, but now he is kicking at the door, opening it to a new freedom. The contrast between these two corridor-shaped images could not have been greater, as if at opposite ends of manic-depressive mood swings. Also, the blackness of the garbage is replaced intense light.
The scene where Arthur is studying stand-up comedy starts with a slow, luxurious camera movement ending at his table. Although cut short, the nature of this movement is replicated in a miniature version of the setting, at his apartment, where in the next scene he is trying to come up with jokes. The formal and thematic similarity makes the scenes melt into each other, indicating his tenuous grip on time and reality – and fittingly, he will soon start to hallucinate during the apartment scene.
The previous example concerned opening shots of adjacent scenes, but this is a direct cut. The low-angle shot of the stairs seems to encourage us to notice the empty sky, and to make a (subconscious) comparison with the next shot, that too low-angle. The rectangular piece of sky is echoed in the vacant mailbox. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, it is all emptiness.
Another cut: the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is followed by a counterstroke, the resurrection of Joker after having been placed on top of the police car, lifeless. The shattered pearls correspond to the pulverised glass on the car hood. The pearls seem almost to come from Mrs. Wayne’s mouth, like the blood he is coughing up.
Another cut: after having shattered the glass of the phone booth, he leans his head at another window pane as if that too is in danger. The otherworldly halo is carried forward by him being out of focus, a blob of gloomy green. And like he vandalised the phone booth, in this subway car he will do something much more transgressive: killing his assailants.
An astounding cut that never fails to stir the imagination on repeat viewings: Arthur from having been punched by Thomas Wayne, to his own kitchen. The similarity in stance is sowing doubts that what happened in the restroom was real, and at least reinforcing the sense that Arthur’s sense of reality is splintered. There is a mirror in front of him in the earlier scene but instead, in a weird way, he is “mirrored” by the cut.
Let us explore some more mirroring, in a chain that is sometimes very obvious, even heavy-handed, but at other times enigmatic. What is really happening here in the first scene? It is quite ambiguous but it seems his behaviour reflects a (possibly inarticulate) desire in Arthur not to just pretend to be a clown but to physically become a clown. He stops himself with the make-up pen at his mouth, probably to put on the big clown smile, but that is not sufficient any more. Then he is exercising his real mouth…
…goes on to use his fingers to enlarge it, in an increasingly grotesque fashion, at the end apparently applying so much painful force that tears are produced, as if he is trying to rip his mouth open to achieve a natural big clown smile.
Later, he is mirroring himself in the newspaper, aping the clown’s diabolical grin…
…and then a wonderful poetic moment: he is again mirroring himself, smiling wistfully, in a person in a taxi driving by in slow motion, as if the other mysteriously senses that Arthur is the instigator of the clown protest movement. The person is not necessarily real, because Arthur is here in the midst of fantasising that he is out with Sophie, after his “great success” doing stand-up, so he might be conjuring up this follower as well. (In that respect, it is interesting that the long hair seems to indicate that the person is a woman, and her hands might well be black – as if this is another version of the black Sophie.)
At the climax he is again mirroring himself, this time in an army of followers, a lot of them in clown masks. His fantasy has become reality. He has now wholly appropriated and become one with his Joker persona. The silly green wig of the clown paraphernalia has become part of him since he has coloured his hair green. In the same way, the artifice of the make-up has been substituted with the reality of his own blood, the murderousness of his nihilistic nature become part of his clown mask, his bloodlust turned into a joke.
There even seems to be a new harmony to him. Earlier, his looks were deliberately lopsided: the grin extended up on one side, and on the other the make-up above and especially beneath one eye larger.
Bruce Wayne is also part of this. In the (bitter)sweet scene where Arthur and Bruce meet – at this point believed to be half-brothers, but representatives of social classes that could not be further apart – Arthur attempts to make the sad boy as “happy” as himself by forcing a grin on to his face. While Arthur is doing this his own face is mirroring the same trajectory towards a smile.
Just before, this is the third time in the film that Arthur is clowning before children (after the boy on the bus and at the children’s hospital), and this flower trick finally manages to elicit some slight emotion in Bruce. Notice the matching colours of their jackets. Arthur’s magic here foreshadows how the Joker’s trickery will fool the future Batman…
…but this first-ever meeting is marked by watchful harmony. Equilibrium is indicated right from the scene’s start with point-of-view shots evenly distributed, from equal distances, the situation even initiated from Bruce’s vantage point, and when they move towards the gate this is marked by related camera movements. Except for presenting themselves, their encounter plays out like a silent film.
And this must surely be a little joke, foreshadowing how Batman will enter the Batcave from Wayne Manor…?
On his way there, Arthur looks at a newspaper photo with Bruce discreetly behind his father, a placement later to be mirrored by his other “son” – in a mirror (whose framing is creating borders echoing the edges of the photo). It is also noteworthy that Arthur’s finger is touching Bruce, as if in a caress – or a threat?
The bankruptcy of the music store that indirectly starts the action of the film is metaphorically encompassing the entire city, and all of existence. “Everything must go!!” says the sign. Arthur Fleck must lose everything before he can become the Joker, and it is also emblematic for the nihilistic, rageful movement he inadvertently founds.
Finally, it is important that the “title card” of Joker is yellow. The pieces of the ruined yellow sign – via the chain reaction of it leading to the assault leading to the revolver leading to him being fired from his beloved job and so on and so on – will ultimately be reconstructed into a new, triumphant identity. The cohesion generated by all the film’s motifs, echoes, reflections and connections resonates with the inevitability of this plot trajectory.