Paradox, Pressure and Metaphor in "Joker"

Professional actor and screenwriter Barry McEvoy analyzes the intricacies of the character of Arthur, AKA "The Joker," demonstrating how to use paradox, pressure, and metaphor to build iconic characters.
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Paradox, Pressure and Metaphor in Joker

Paradox

A person or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.

What do Tony Soprano, Cam from Modern Family and now Arthur from Joker all have in common? They’re great characters you say? Absolutely. No arguments there. But what makes them great characters, is their unmistakeable behavioural paradoxes.

When things get messy… which Tony’s 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?

Which Cam is going to show up? The fabulous, show tunes loving, gentle as a puppy Cam? Or, the I can bail hay with my eyes closed and throw a football through a brick wall Cam?

In Joker, Arthur 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 great paradox that the writer can run with. But it’s not enough for the writers, Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. They want to give Arthur more.

Arthur has lived a joyless life. “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. And 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. The very next scene shows Arthur, in a fetal 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 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.

[Script Extra: Elevate Your Story - Push Your Hero Off a Cliff]

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 (download it here) should be hailed, studied and passed on to new screenwriters for years, it is so clever. (The fact that the Golden Globes failed to even nominate the screenplay speaks volumes. They must think a good script is about lengthy dialogues and speeches. Or that the genre determines the value of a script. But, I’ll say no more… the total whore in me 100% wants a Golden Globe, too, one day!)

But I digress. 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. The minute your protagonist gets comfy you need to take him or her out by the knees! Todd Phillips and Scott Silver know this well.

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.

[Script Extra: 30 Days of Tips for Developing Complex Characters]

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.

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 /gets beneath our skin and heightens the impact of this absolute masterpiece of creative screenwriting.

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