There’s a scene in “Joker” where Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck dashes into a rancid public bathroom after a harrowing killing spree on the New York City subway. With Arthur emboldened by his sudden taste for violence — and Phoenix by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s unsettling string score — he begins to dance. As depicted by the sinewy, gaunt, physically starved Phoenix, it’s an eerie act of undulation (and was reportedly an improvisation by the actor), and less a dance than some kind of animalistic channeling of psychic forces. Whether that’s Phoenix acting as Arthur, or Phoenix having some kind of fourth-wall-breaking spasm, who knows? It’s in the movie, and it is what it is.
The New York Times’ dance critic Gia Kourlas has weighed in on Phoenix’s performance, and she says that the actor is a “great dancer” in a recently published piece.
“It’s not just the way he moves, with uncultivated finesse — dreamily, animalistic, like a rock star. Or how, when he stretches his arms out side to side, he evokes the ghosts of Jim Morrison or Brandon Lee in ‘The Crow.’ It has more to do with the nuanced way his body can express emotion; you see the mind at work, and because of that the dancing enters another realm,” Kourlas writes.
Kourlas is careful to remind that this scene, now already iconic, is not the first time we see Arthur dance. “Dance is Arthur’s escape, his life force. The first time he dances isn’t in the pivotal scene in a grimy public bathroom, after he’s committed his first murders. It’s in the apartment he shares with his mother as ‘Shall We Dance,’ the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, plays on the television. The number is ‘Slap That Bass’: ‘The world is in a mess/with politics and taxes/and people grinding axes/there’s no happiness.'”
She goes on to liken Phoenix’s footwork to some of the great modern dancers: “Pale and gaunt with wavy hair pasted to the sides of his face, his appearance, at times, has a touch of Rudolf Nureyev or Sergei Polunin — two Russians with attitude. His skin stretches tautly over muscles and protruding ribs. But it’s not just a cosmetic transformation. Nor is what he does ballet. Mr. Phoenix has the sinewy ability to turn his body — particularly his back — into a Butoh horror show of odd, freakish angles.”