The new Joker is the darkest, most unsettling superhero flick yet. It rewrote the possibilities of what the genre could be. And it delivered something I had never seen in a movie villain before, from Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) in the 1978 Superman to Thanos (Josh Brolin) in last year’s Avengers: Infinity War — a genuine sense of dread. A feeling that everything was not going to be OK.
Of course we owe that feeling to the fantastic directing, writing, and music. But it was Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as The Joker that sold it. His tortured laugh. His otherworldly interpretive dancing. His schizophrenic mannerisms. And one of the film’s bleakest moments was improvised on the spot by Phoenix, completely taking the crew by surprise.
The scene opens with Arthur Fleck — at a point in the film where his downward spiral had begun to gain momentum — staring vacantly at his open refrigerator. He then removes the food and curls himself inside before shutting the door. It’s a stark look at how isolated — how shut off — he had become from the world around him, and this improvised act from Phoenix manifested his character’s feelings in a perfectly horrifying visual.
Phoenix improvised several moments from the film, including the creepy bathroom dancing and parts of the scene where he accidentally fires the gun in his apartment, but the fridge bit was so out-of-left-field, so impactful, that it still has the crew reeling.
In an interview with Slash Film, Joker cinematographer Lawrence Sher discussed the shocking moment:
“While some scenes were very planned out, like when he’s in the phonebooth or walking up the stairs, others had no plan at all,
When he climbed in the refrigerator, we had no idea he was going to do that. We set up two camera positions, and Joaquin just thought about what he would do if he was a massive insomniac. Again, we lit it so he could go anywhere, and the first and only time he did it, we were mesmerised.
I remember thinking, ‘What is he doing? Did he just crawl in the fridge?’ It was as fun and weird for us to watch it, too.”
After the improvisation, the crew decided to remove Phoenix’s leash during filming more often.
“Joaquin created that whole dance and, after the success of that scene, we started creating more moments like that,” Sher says.
“Like when he’s playing with the gun and fires it into the wall. All we knew was that he’d fire the gun into the wall at some point, but we never planned when or knew that he’d stand and have that conversation with himself and begin dancing.
We just had two cameras in there and let it happen, which became a major part of how we did a lot of things.”
Many critics are talking about how Phoenix could nab an Oscar for the performance. And this knowledge about how much of the character he truly made on his own could help solidify his victory.
Joker in theaters now.
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