Joker: Joaquin Phoenix Dancing with Himself
By Kristin Grady
Arthur Fleck sheds his identity like a snake’s skin or the ashes of a phoenix… Get it? Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker emerges as he embraces the madness within him. The implicit meaning is eloquently externalized by Arthur’s improvised dances, exposing his innermost feelings through (mostly) silent movement. In brief, intimate moments, he expresses pivotal changes in his character transformation. An adult victim of child abuse, he exists as a man-child, searching for self-worth in the acceptance of others. When a gun is placed in his hands, he discovers a physical (and dangerous) replacement for the power that has eluded him his entire life.
“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose: to bring laughter and joy to the world.”
Arthur’s existence is a fantasy fed to him by his mentally ill mother. Surrounded by the grit and grime of 1970’s era Gotham, Arthur doesn’t belong. His Vaudevillian antics, high kicks and silly expressions are similar to the highly articulate silent performances of Charlie Chaplin, who doesn’t appear to be a huge star in this era and neither does Arthur Fleck. So behind the times, he comes off a little nerdy, almost cringey. He spins his goofy sign and tries desperately to engage with people who walk around him like a traffic cone. Unfazed by their apathy, Arthur increases the energy of his child-like performance, resembling a little kid desperate for the attention of the absent/unavailable parent… In the body of a grown man, dressed as a clown. It seems his sad life has always been this way, and has little potential to get better.
Such pungent desperation makes it almost understandable why he’s being avoided. Arthur the clown is fulfilling a need the only way he knows how. Absorbed by his mother’s delusions, he didn’t get a chance to be properly socialized, therefore is unable to relate to or defend himself against a hostile world. The resignation with which Arthur takes the beating from the boys in the alley shows how submissive he is to this state. This sad clown is constantly humiliated by the same people from whom he yearns for love and acceptance. Soon after, a well-meaning father figure gives him a gun…
Arthur caresses the weapon, contemplating the messy consequences. Like an adolescent discovering themself for the first time, his mother is in the next room, unaware of her son’s curious hands. Bullets removed, it appears he thinks it’s unloaded and safe to play. He holds it in his left hand, then his right hand, feeling out how to handle it, before deciding it feels best in his left hand. He threatens the TV and his mother’s chair, as if unsure of where to point it. The gun becomes flaccid in his hands, then rises as he cocks the trigger, and alarmingly looks like he’s going to put the barrel in his mouth. This move is symbolic of his fatalistic desire for self-destruction, borderline-suicidal mental illness, and has a sexual/masturbatory connotation heavily connected to shame. Anytime he takes care of himself, he feels bad about it. Instead of inflicting that feeling on himself, Arthur rises as the gun starts to dance…
The gun leads his hand in a sensual upward movement, like a cobra or a hiss of smoke. He feels like the power is outside of him, and he’s letting it take control. Arthur closes his eyes and looks to be enjoying a mysterious, intense music, a charming beat only he can hear, as he lets the gun lead his body to express a deep, unfulfilled desire. His juvenile hip-swaying is experimentally sexual, a little awkward, yet has a hyper-masculine confidence inspired by the weapon in his hands. Arms raised like he’s imagining dancing in a discotheque, he holds the gun above his head, a maximum erection metaphor, infusing him with the courage to talk to an imaginary girl. We see a tentative step towards his transformation from an abused preadolescent-minded clown to a self-assured adult man, simultaneously exploring his sexuality and an urge for violence. Arthur undulates his sickly form, gets lost in his grown-up fantasy, slowly builds toward a moment of self-fulfillment… and the moment takes him by surprise.
Accidentally shooting a hole in the wall is as ejaculatory a metaphor as it gets. In a brief burst of over-confidence, Arthur lost control, shot the gun, and immediately dropped it, like he was bitten by a rattlesnake. Alarmed by the noise, Penny calls out, catching her son in this dangerous act of masturbation. A gunshot is tough to cover up with an excuse such as “I’m watching a war movie” and turning up the volume, but Penny seems to easily accept any excuse for her son’s strange behavior. Arthur’s fingertip circles the hole in the red wallpaper, lightly fondling it. He’s breathless and a little fascinated by the effect of his metal seed. The gun inspired this dance of self-discovery. Arthur is sensing the Joker inside him, but they haven’t met yet. It takes a violent act of retribution to truly introduce the title character.
The bathroom dance is a critical point in the character’s transition from Arthur to Joker. After committing a triple homicide, Arthur hides in a public bathroom. The messy retaliatory murders were a little like a first sexual experience for him, since he already seemed to associate firing the gun with an orgasm. Running and hiding in a dingy public bathroom implies his deep shame over not only the act of murder, but the bungling manner in which it was executed. The cool way he thought he was acting in the previous scene (a lot like Travis Bickle) seemed to mean he thought he would be much better at it. Experiencing the act of murder is an initial shock, but that fades as the liberation from his abused past sets in. His body begins to dance like a puppet without strings, led by this new sinister power inside him.
Perfectly synchronized to the subtle cello score, he draws an invisible string between his fingers, brow furrowed and lips pursed as if it hurts… then he lets go. Arthur was being pulled apart by wanting love and wanting to fight back. The release of acting on his violent impulse washes over him like a cool rain, much more satisfying than shooting a hole in the wall. His new murderer’s hands float up towards the light and he looks at them as if in awe of their savage potency. Reflected in his astounded clear blue eyes, the murders had burst open the floodgates of his repressed trauma reservoir. All that destructive energy wasn’t radiating from the gun, it was from within him, through his deadly hands.
Similar to Tai Chi and/or the choreography of Twila Tharpe, Arthur/Joker’s movements manipulate the energy in the bathroom, pushing and pulling this newfound force around, testing its limits and his own. Abuse victims experience a lot of powerlessness, so he may have felt an intense need to take his power back and release it in a surge of violence. Instead of goofy clown expressions, his face is like a meditative mask of a Buddhist monk, floating on another plane of existence. Not exactly an “out-of-body” experience, Arthur/Joker is/are having more of an “inner-body” experience, uncovering his deepest desires and darkest impulses in a euphoric state.
After reeling this external energy into himself, his hand circled his solar plexus, the manipura chakra, or the seat of power. Gathering that bright-hot sun energy radiating from inside, he moves it toward the unlit side of the room. Joker is showing Arthur how to draw his bright inner light to the dark side, where the futility of his life is revealed. In a graceful, uninterrupted movement, his hands form an angled cube, his left wrist turned backwards, looking like it would be painful to hold for a long time. The unsteady cube is a mold, full of nothing, like the one he was trying to fit into his whole life, an impossible structure to maintain, a empty box in which he could not jack. The cube smoothly collapses in a controlled move. Arthur realizes he held that structure in place, and he can to destroy it… or just let it fall to pieces.
The last move is a critical turning point in the transformation. Joker looks in the mirror and extends his arms, as if to say “Here I am!” or asking for a hug. Awash in the power of self-realization, Joker stretches his arms out, embracing the chaos, open to receiving more. This gesture articulates the euphoria of falling in love, a tango of one. Arthur had been deprived of love from his father and society, so other than the codependent love of his mother, the only other source he could find was himself… Well, the psychotic, homicidal clown version of himself. His expression does not match the open, loving gesture. His face is still in the neutral, trance-like state. Arthur looks at himself in the mirror for the first time, a blank slate, a miserable sadness in his dead eyes. Those eyes tells us Arthur is fading away by letting Joker take over.
Leading a parade of one down Exorcist-steep stairs like the Music Man on Hunter S. Thompson’s suitcase worth of drugs, Joker’s most infamous dance is a celebration of chaos. Arthur Fleck is dead. The fragile shell of Arthur’s personality had been shattered by betrayal and his crumbling delusions. Joker emerges a fully-fledged spree killer with nothing to lose, dancing in elation. In a fitted three-piece suit, he looks more grown up than the rest of the dance scenes. His suggestive hip-thrusting and shadow boxing project a fully realized masculine sexuality, mingled with a proclivity for violence. Unlike the first gun dance, he’s not dancing for an imaginary girl, he’s dancing for himself. Relishing a cigarette steeped in post-coital bliss, after killing most of the people closest to him, it seems murder has replaced sex in his broken mind. Assured by the inevitably of either his suicide, murder by cops, or commitment to Arkham, Joker expresses his joyous last liberation in a reckless, madcap dance down some very steep stairs.
Halfway down the stairs, the music and frame rate slows. Bathed in the golden light of sunset, eyes closed, he savors another cigarette (that he pulls out of nowhere without lighting it, like a magic trick!). The moment slowly draws out as he smokes, whips his wet green hair, haloed by the setting sun, so in the zone he’s lost in the music in his head… We reach the summit of Arthur’s transformation into Joker.
Arthur’s clown dances are cartoony bids for love, performed for others, ignored by many. He transitions from victim to villain using powerful physical expressions of emotion and only himself for an audience. By the end, his moves are wildly ecstatic and primal, as his humanity dissolves, eroded by lifelong abuse. Joker’s dances implied he wasn’t a costume Arthur wore, it was the other way around. Arthur was the protective character shielding the dark, manic force that eventually bursts from within him.
Special thanks to Brian Robert Oliver for giving so much time and guidance for this article!