Of Rats and Clowns: Critiquing Colour and the Real in Joker

By Wendy Brooking

Contains minor spoilers. 

Opening with a radio news report, eerily evocative of Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains, an underlying sense of impending apocalypse is inescapable. Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) applies his own iconic clown make-up as we hear that the city is becoming overrun by rats – “super rats” – in this DC dystopia. We glimpse the rodents briefly, but perhaps “rat” is more telling when considered as a homonym, interpreted varyingly as a person who is ‘disloyal towards their friends’; ‘a despicable person’; or ‘to betray […] trust or desert’. An immediate association can be made between “rats” and the group of youths who, unprovoked, decide to attack Fleck at work: they frequent the rubbish-lined side-streets and flee from the scene like rodents scarpering from discovery. Occurring so close to the film’s beginning, this dichotomy of rats versus clowns describes the narrative as a whole. However, complications arise when the divide blurs and we begin to question whether we smell a rat in those assumed to be trustworthy. 

Some characters are uncovered as more complex than they first appear, but one cannot help but ponder if we will ever fully comprehend precisely who is truthful or how much was real. Certainly, some illusions are shattered, but other miscomprehensions may remain. “Comedy is subjective”, yes, but perhaps in this case cinematic reality is too. Alignment with Fleck may be an uncomfortable, if simultaneously captivating experience. His perception of the real is intriguing, since (what we are given to believe are) the hallucinations occur when Fleck is still consuming medication intended to be beneficial for his wellbeing, only to realise once he ceases taking the pills that his reality is contrived. It appears that, whilst the medication may be intended to help him, the side effects are ultimately detrimental. Social Services in Gotham are chronically underfunded, but their inclusion here increases sympathy for Fleck, and it is a refreshing change to find that there is aftercare in place outside of Arkham Asylum, albeit one in need of improvement. 

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The relationship between Fleck and Thomas Wayne is also thought provoking, not least because we are given conflicting versions of their relationship. After all, how reliable is the paperwork? Approaching the Wayne estate, Fleck encounters a young Bruce Wayne. They stand divided by a gate but united by colour, as both wear corresponding shades of camel brown coat. Surely, this subconscious link between the characters calls the truth into question yet again, creating a deliberate equivalence between them, throwing doubt onto how closely related they indeed are. Across the film more broadly, colour is incredibly muted and relies primarily on three shades: dark blue, amber and bright red. The blue and amber particularly dominate, woven into every aspect of the diegesis. As complementary colours, blue and amber enhance the vivid appearance of each other when in juxtaposition. The effect is to generate a strange consistency across the film despite changes in setting, scenario and characters present. In this case, the colours become incredibly prominent and overshadow most other hues which dare venture into frame. Red is the exception. 

Red is skilfully equated with comedy through use of red lighting in the underground clubs, the noses of the clowns, the carpet of the theatre, and the suit of the Joker – incidentally a presumed reference to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). Through intertextual references back to the Modern Times (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937), Joker draws on Depression era comedies, inviting a parallel between the escapism encapsulated by cinema for 1930s and now for Fleck. From a young age he idolises comedic television and red becomes a colour of his hope for success, appreciation and a career in stand-up. However, we must, inevitably, return to the theme of rats. Not only is the idolised figure of Murray (Robert De Niro) an epitome of the success which Fleck strives for, but he betrays Fleck’s trust through his decision to ridicule his work publicly and bring him on the show for further mockery. Comedy has been held onto as an inspired pathway out of the crumbling and impoverished neighbourhood, but suddenly the illusion is broken: a friendly television persona is skewed to reveal an adverse side. Initially a comedian – a clown – he is outed as a rat; at least from Fleck’s perspective. This treatment of Joker is a sharp reminder that we should always consider at whose expense we are appreciating humour, plus the importance of understanding the roots of behaviours before running to judgements prematurely. 

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Tellingly, it is not only comedy which red is linked to, but also violence and danger. Dramatically present in the glowing emergency lights of the hospital, the stripes of the ambulances and, of course, blood. Perhaps this highlights the fine line in the film between the joy and hurt that comedy might produce? We close, finally, with a trail of red footprints in a sterile white environment. Are they real? What do they mean? If one thing is certain in the interwoven layers of this film, it is that you will leave the cinema with a lot of questions. 

The biopic style of the film brings an immediacy to the portrayal. Various lyrics of Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire invariably remind us to pick ourselves up because misery has got to go. More subtly, ‘Smile’ from Chaplin’s Modern Times underscores the push to appear happy, however false it might be. The use of music here frankly warrants a separate critique of its own. That this review has only slightly scratched the surface of the plethora of themes Joker touches on is testament to how rich a viewing it truly is. I only hope that reading this will induce enough intrigue for at least a few more people to walk into the cinema and form questions and interpretations of their own.

Definition of Rat: https://chambers.co.uk/search/?query=rat&title=21st 

Images belongs to Todd Phillips' Joker, BRON Studios/Creative Wealth Media Financa/DC Comics/DC Entertainment/Joint Effort/Village Roadshow Pictures/Warner Bros.

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