Paradox, Pressure and Metaphor in JOKER (as published in Script Magazine)

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Paradox: : one (such as a person, situation, or action) having seemingly contradictory qualities or phases

When things get messy… which Tony Soprano is going to show up? The morally reprehensible, every-sin-under-the-sun Tony? Or the greatest dad ever Tony?

Is he going to put his arm around Chrissy and mend his broken ways with tenderness and wisdom? Or is he going to whack him in broad daylight, just for the sport of it?

In Modern Family, when faced with a dilemma… which Cam do we see? The fabulous, show tunes loving, southern belle-style Cam? Or, the I can bail hay with my eyes closed and throw a football through a brick wall Cam?

A badly written character is one that is easy to predict. With the use of clever paradox…a character becomes 3 dimensional and unpredictable. Paradox means we can never switch-off while we’re watching. We just don’t know what’s going to happen next.

In the Joker script, written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, the character of Arthur is riddled with flipsides and paradoxes. He suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh when he is in pain.  To guffaw uncontrollably when the rest of us might cry. That’s a paradox the writers can run with.  But they choose to pile on more.

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Arthur’s has been a joyless existence. “I have never been happy for one moment in my entire life”. He was severely neglected and abused as a child. And adult life hasn’t been much better. So, let’s make him … a comedian. Someone whose job is to bring joy and happiness into our lives. This is a seemingly contradictory set of traits, is it not? Yes, it is. In terrible films this would never happen. In terrible films the baddies are bad and the goodies are perfect. That makes the characters predictable and boring. But this is a great film. There’s a reason why an actor of Joaquin Phoenix’s pure genius was so drawn in to the part.  Arthur’s paradoxes are at the very heart of what makes this film an absolute classic.


Pressure: The pressure on Arthur is relentless and from all angles. Right from the start he is disrespected at work and then violently attacked on the street for no reason at all.

The best type of pressure on a character is similar to a cat tormenting a mouse. The cat wants to get that mouse as close to death as possible but if it kills the mouse the jig’s up.

There are multiple stabs at Arthur’s ego and sanity throughout the first hour of the film. But when he sees his TV talk show hero Murray ridicule him in front of the entire world, it is the hammer blow. The knockout punch. It seems to be a cruelty that could kill him. Kill the mouse.

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The very next scene shows Arthur, in a foetal position in his bed, with a gun at the bedside table. There’s no coming back from that. But… we hear the television: there is a groundswell movement of clown impersonators sweeping the city. Arthur listens, turns his face toward the report. There they are thousands of similarly disregarded victims of the system, made up as clowns. His demeanour slowly shifts. He is their hero. Him!  Poor beleaguered Arthur. The lowest of the low. He smiles a real smile. At his darkest moment he is revived and pulled back to a reason for living. The cat has let the mouse come back to life.

For what reason? For what gain must you torture, cruel cat?! Because that is the game. The game is torture. No torture, no cat, no mouse, no game. We are here to watch suffering. Some might say we are here to watch how man overcomes or survives suffering. Either way… no drama (or comedy) is ever good, let alone great, without pressure and suffering.

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Do we now decide that Arthur has suffered enough? No, we do not. He is revived enough to set him forth on another (and even worse) path of suffering. What’s the worst insult you can throw at someone in the school yard? An attack on their mother. So that’s where the script of Joker goes. The fact that it also seamlessly weaves through a backstory that inextricably links him to the Wayne family is another sign that we are witnessing a screenplay of the highest craft. This screenplay should be hailed, studied and passed on to new screenwriters for years, it is so clever.

Poor Arthur is fucked with from start to finish and even when things seem to be going well (seeing other malcontents look up to and mimic him) it is to toy with his vanity.

There is one fleeting moment where he thinks he is high status. He’s smoking a cigarette and acting out of character (cool and tough) with the detectives in front of the hospital. He turns his back to them and skulks away, flicking his cigarette off into the night like a cowboy badass… then walks straight into a (supposed to be) sliding glass door.joker glass door

Pressure causes a character to reveal (or in this case to become) his or her true self. The relentless pressure on Arthur throughout Joker gives him no choice but to accept completely the twisted creature he has become by the end of the film. It is the only way he can survive it.

Metaphor: Google ‘metaphor in film’ and you’ll find a lot of objects and things that are set to represent something else. A rotten apple on the bedside table to show loss of innocence. A flock of birds to connote freedom or escape. A red scarf to hint at sexuality or anger. But they are fleeting. A genius metaphor in film is lasting, deeper and hits the audience in the feels when they’re not looking. Great metaphor should bubble under the surface. It’s like a great boxer, working the body, while we keep looking for a punch in the face.

Think of the counterpoint of the killer whales and the bare knuckle boxer in Rust and Bone. The whole film is based around it. Or the myriad underlying metaphors for pregnancy and childbirth in Alien. The audience doesn’t have to be aware of the metaphor. But they will feel it. Which scene would pack the bigger punch… a woman tells her lover she is pregnant in a kitchen? Or that same woman breaks the news in an abattoir? I know which film I would rather watch.

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Joker begins with a radio news bulletin telling us that we are on the 18th day of a citywide garbage strike.” As the film progresses, the pollution and neglect of the city becomes slowly but surely more pronounced. Just like the morals and integrity of the citizenry of Gotham.  And just like the tortured and poisoned mind of poor Arthur himself. The neglect. The abuse. The growing pollution of his reasoning. It symbolises both Arthur and Gotham at the same time. It works us under the surface and heightens the impact of this absolute masterpiece of creative screenwriting.

-Barry McEvoy


+This article was published in Script Magazine NOV 13, 2020 …