Very little hasn't been said about Joker, the Todd Phillips-directed take on the classic Batman villain. While he ultimately becomes the titular character, Joaquin Phoenix begins his journey as Arthur Fleck, a lowly working clown who slides slowly into madness as his buoys are snatched away one by one, leaving him adrift. When he ultimately succumbs to violence and inspires massive riots in a city that was already on the verge of bursting, the movie becomes a Rorschach blot, and it's sparked online discussions about politics, class, mental health, and a host of other divisive topics.
One of the few things that viewers can likely agree on is that Arthur is, at times, a very scary clown. He's not the first to scare people with his makeup and red nose — a 2016 Vox poll found that 42 percent of the 1,500 Americans surveyed reported a fear of clowns — but he stands alone as a disturbingly realistic homicidal clown. Even Pennywise from Stephen King's It has a supernatural origin.
SYFY WIRE spoke with three real clowns, Eric Schmalenberger, Pixel Witch, and Morgan Wilson, about their thoughts on Joker and, specifically, the way the film depicts clowns. They all saw something familiar in Phoenix's clown performance.
"I don't think that there's much [comparison] between horror movies and serious violent dramas and a clown's place in the world," Schmalenberger tells SYFY WIRE. Fear of clowns, he explains, is multifaceted but usually comes down to the uncanny valley, the point at which something is just off enough from our sense of realism that we find it disturbing.
What most people don't realize is that prototypical clowns — the ones you associate with children's birthday parties and balloon animals — are just one strain of the larger art of clowning. As the clowns we spoke to explain, clowning as performance art is about finding humor and emotion (or often both) in the world's weirdness, making a commentary through movement, costumery, and makeup.
Since emotion is such an enormous part of clowning — getting lost in the character you've created for yourself is not an unusual thing, Schmalenberger explains — the wild emotions and mental health problems Fleck faces throughout the film feel appropriate.
That's especially true for Witch, who was impressed by how unabashed the movie is about discussing mental health and the lack of resources for people who need them. "He realizes throughout this movie that he just has to be himself," Witch says. "A lot of things a clown does are dark in some way because you're taking the truth but then putting the truth on its head."
Witch continues: "It makes people uncomfortable — and that's why they laugh. They're uncomfortable because it touches on something funny but at the same time it's touching on the truth."
That discomfort, Schmalenberger explains, is similar to how "some people are worried about people in masks. You can't emotionally read [them]. And I think it's what makes the Joker such a great villain, because [he] does walk this very thin line between madness and brilliance. And you're never quite sure."
In Joker, Arthur accidentally becomes the literal face of a growing resistance against Gotham's upper class. That he begins the movie as a party clown for hire and, therefore, is commonly found roaming the streets in his red, white, and blue face paint becomes significant when he kills three men after they beat him on the train. The resistance adopts clown masks and face paint as a cultural signifier, taking up Arthur's clown persona as a sort of mascot.
In a way, that the resistance chose a clown makes perfect sense.
"My idea of what a clown is is that it's supposed to hold a mirror up to society and say, 'Look at what you're doing, isn't this ridiculous?' in either a sad way or a happy way," Wilson says. "But you make people think about stuff and get out of whatever their regular daily life is."
That's why, Wilson adds, so much of Fleck's clown is realistic — which could be what makes him so frightening. For what it's worth, Wilson says, he and many of his clown friends agree Phoenix could have a promising future as a clown if he ever gets sick of his current gig.
"The scene specifically where he's moving in the bathroom after he's killed the [three guys on the train], that dancing scene — it reminded me instantly of any of the exercises I've done in class," Wilson says. "He was doing stuff that I've done to train and get better at clowning."
Pulling faces in the mirror, slowly moving through a haunting, interpretive dance to convey emotion, painting an expression on your face that doesn't actually convey the person behind the makeup's emotions — those are the tools a real clown uses to get their point across. And in this case, the tools are used to commit murder.
"It is interesting that [Joker] is the first time that it's been one of those murdery, scary clowns that's actually using clowning techniques," Wilson says. "Like when he goes and starts using magic and all those things, all that works because I've learned it."
In the end, what's "scary" is just one person's point of view.
Schmalenberger says he finds it "hysterical" when people are scared of clowns. "I think it's a fun tool to have in one's belt," he says. When your job is to make people uncomfortable in order to, for all intents and purposes, teach them a lesson about the world, "scary" might not be the worst thing you can be.
"I think people watch these movies and read these books and see clowns as the villain. It's easy because you have that image in your head of 'Oh, scary clown. I should be afraid of that. That clown kills people,'" Wilson muses. "And then there's real clowns like John Wayne Gacy, who was a serial killer. So people are like 'Oh yeah, clowns are scary people,' which, in that case, was very true. I can't remember who caught onto it first, but it was like 'Oh, [clowns are wearing] a mask. This is something someone can hide their true emotions behind.'"
Will the fact that Phoenix made for such a believable clown actually cause more problems for the profession and practitioners of the art form?
"I don't think it will impact so much what professional clowns out there are already doing," Wilson says. "I mean, I'm not running around murdering people all day. That's not a part of my job ... I'm hoping that it doesn't mean that people will see real clowns doing those things and be like 'Oh yeah, I saw the Joker doing that' and then that's their first reaction. That would probably not be ideal."