WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
Throughout Todd Phillips' Joker, it's hard to envision Joaquin Phoenix's depressed Arthur "Happy" Fleck as someone who's one step away from turning into the Clown Prince of Crime. He's upset at society's treatment of the lower class but not really on the brink of unleashing chaos -- not just yet. Even more so, his personality doesn't come anywhere close to resembling the Joker's. And even when you can tell he's reaching his breaking point, it doesn't seem like he'll run around town with guns and bombs laughing hysterically.
However, as much as the movie is a character study of Arthur Fleck more than a Joker flick, we do get one scene before the explosive finale depicts the Joker riots that allow Arthur a brief moment to shine as the ultimate DC villain. And make no mistake, that scene is very unnerving.
As Arthur prepares for his appearance on Murray Franklin's (Robert DeNiro) late night talk show, he's masking his face in white and seemingly happy for the first time since childhood. Then, he's interrupted by two former colleagues: Randall (Glenn Fleshler) and the little person Gary (Leigh Gill). They're checking in on him to see how he's doing after his delusional mom, Penny, died, unaware that Arthur suffocated her in an act of emotional liberation.
He thanks them for their concern but abruptly and violently rebuffs Randall when it's revealed the latter is merely there to check on Arthur following a shooting. Arthur killed three attackers at a Gotham train station using a gun Randall gave him -- a weapon he reported Arthur for having to get him fired from his clown job. In short, Randall's there to cover his tracks as Arthur's source for the fire arm because he knows cops are buzzing around. In a flurry of revenge, Arthur stabs him to death using a scissors. It's a savage sequence, and while you sympathize with Arthur, no one wants to see a person torn apart like Randall, especially when it's followed by Arthur brutally slamming Randall's head into a wall.
What ensues is pure Joker as we watch Arthur bask in the crimson glory on his wall and pool of blood on the ground. Gary cowers in fear in the corner, leaving the audience concerned that Arthur's going to kill him too. Arthur assures Gary that he can leave, but there's a "will he, won't he?" tension lingering, as Arthur could be toying with Gary.
Gary's actually unable to leave in a moment of cruel levity, though, and he has to ask Arthur to undo the latch on the door for him as he's too short to reach it. At this point, it seems Arthur's going to finish the job and wrap up loose ends, only for him to kiss Gary's head and let him out for being kind to him for years.
It's a moment of relief at the end of this slow burning chain of events, but everything in the sequence represents the Joker. The lack of impulse control is a Joker character trait that's been seen in numerous comics, cartoons and movies. Not to mention there's an air of unpredictability that leaves the audience wondering if Arthur's descent into madness will result in him killing an innocent, helpless man.
Nonetheless, Phillips keeps Arthur somewhat in line so we can kind of root for him. The style of violence and twisted comedy unleashed here makes Arthur finally feel like the Joker, especially as he goes off with a dark confidence to make a political statement against Gotham's deceitful citizens on Murray's show.
That said, Arthur enjoys the kill, playing cerebral mind games and leaving us guessing about whether his murder spree's going to continue. While Arthur spends most of the film as a mentally-ill introvert, in this moment, he's sinister, intimidating and downright scary. It's the comical aggression we've come to associate with the Joker. And while it's not a long scene, it instills a sense of dread in a way only Mistah J knows how to do.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham. The film is now in theaters.