Joker is an anti-plot story with an unreliable narrator. Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the main character and devious narrator that makes this story move.
Arthur is a kind man who has a condition which causes him to laugh when he is anxious or nervous. Phoenix does an excellent job of this laugh, he chokes and coughs, he shows desperation in his eyes to try to stop when he can’t. This isn’t the maniacal laugh of the Joker we know from other Batman incarnations and this isn’t the Joker we think we know either.
Anti-plot stories are a wide and varied bunch, essentially anything which falls out of a ‘normal’ external or internal plot (known as Arch-plot and mini-plots) can be framed as an anti-plot story, but the hallmark of the anti-plot is mocking the structure and conventions of typical storytelling. Stories that break the 4th wall, have non-linear time, or outrageous plot exaggerations for the purpose of bending the audience’s perceptions are anti-plots. Fight Club is an anti-plot masterwork.
Joker is filled with scenes that could be hallucinations and some that are definitely hallucinations, to the point where walking out of the film it’s very possible to think that the entire story is just in Arthur Fleck’s mind. There’s no Wayne’s World-esce wobbly transition to denote when a dream sequence is happening, and it means that you come out of the film with a lot of questions about what was real and what is real.
The anti-plot is a difficult plot structure to do well, on the other hand, if you do get it right it’s almost guaranteed to stick in the audience’s mind after they’ve put in so much energy to get their head’s around the story. Because it’s work for the audience to understand, the anti-plot is a fragile thing. One slip up and you’ve lost the audience.
Joker doesn’t slip up.
Arthur is a caring man in an uncaring and malicious environment. His laughing condition makes forming new human relationships difficult, which leaves him alone. While people might look at him while he laughs at nothing on the bus, they are not seeing him. As the story moves people treat him worse and worse. He’s beaten up multiple times, he’s betrayed, ignored, lied to, mocked. The inadequate help he was getting dwindles to no help at all.
Everything turns when Arthur tries to help out a woman being harassed on the train by a group of three drunk businessmen. His nervous laugh gets their attention, and they start to beat him. Then Arthur fights back. Using a gun he got earlier in the film, he shots the first one in the head. As the other two back off he shoots and kills the second man. Then after wounding the third, he chases after the man and puts many bullets into the crawling man, as though putting down a rabid animal. Arthur runs and hides in a public toilet… where he dances… to no music. This is the first instance we see of Arthur’s horrific self-actualisation, by then end of the film more people are dead and Arthur has become the fully realised Joker.
The train scene above is not the climax of the movie; it is the end of Act 1 and the point in the movie where we know what kind of movie we are watching. This is a Joker movie, and the Joker is mad as a hatter.
There are two other scenes in the film that are iconic: when the two clowns come over to console Arthur after his mother’s death, and the climax of the film, the interview with Murray, played by Robert De Niro. These scenes are fantastic because of their setup and payoff, and because they are a joke. The train scene, consoling clowns scene, and the Murray interview are all told with a punchline. To spout it in nerdy analysis of a joke term: all of these scenes contain the same structure as a joke – incongruity resolution. Each time we are told the scene will play out one way, then it plays out differently than we expect. We are being told jokes.
Joker is going to be talked about by film and story types for a long time. It’s clear at the time of writing this review, two weeks after release, that a portion of the audience didn’t get the joke. Each to their own, I say. In my mind Joker is a masterpiece, I’m putting it right up there with Fight Club as an example of the anti-plot that deserves to be studied and emulated, but not sequelled, please for the love of God don’t make a sequel.