Let’s Talk About Zazie Beetz’s Role in Joker
The Atlanta star plays Joker's neighbor Sophie.
There’s no two ways about it: Todd Phillips’ Joker is a smash hit. With 11 Academy award nominations (despite a 69 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and over $1 billion at the box office, nothing could stop Joker from awkwardly dancing down that staircase and into the hearts of countless disaffected white guys everywhere.
Even though I didn’t connect with the film, I’m able to admire Phoenix’s performance, the cinematography, the atmosphere. But I’m still hung up on one of the more puzzling aspects of the film, namely Zazie Beetz as Sophie. As Arthur Fleck’s neighbor, single mom Sophie was meant to be a warped version of a love interest, by virtue of the fact that she’s the only character who treats him with a modicum of civility.
Sophie reappears throughout Joker, in the audience at Arthur’s open mic, strolling down the street with him, listening intently and laughing at his jokes. The big reveal towards the end of the film is that Sophie was never there: Arthur manufactured a relationship with her that lives entirely in his head. Except it’s hardly a reveal. It’s painfully obvious from the beginning that she’s a fantasy.
When he breaks into her apartment and she finds him bloodied and disheveled, she is clearly terrified of him. And so are we. This was one of the more affecting scenes of the film, as the tension builds. Thankfully, Arthur doesn’t have a violent outburst and harm Sophie or her daughter, but their ending is left ambiguous. Since we know that Arthur is an unreliable narrator, what really happens to Sophie?
According to everyone involved, Sophie survives. Todd Phillips and Zazie Beetz confirm it in separate interviews, where Beetz says, “It was always very self-evident to me that she didn’t get killed. Arthur was avenging himself against people who did him wrong, and I didn’t [wrong him]. I acknowledged him.”
Beetz continues, saying “I think when he comes into my apartment, he understands what the situation is and that I would feel fear in that moment. I still function in an act of trying to take care [of him], like, ‘Should I call your mother?’ or, ‘Do you need help right now?’ I never felt that [she died], but a lot of people did — so it’s up to interpretation, I suppose.”
In the script, there is an additional scene that didn’t make it into the film, where Arthur leaves Randall’s bloody wallet at her door with a note asking her to watch the Murray Franklin show and leaves her his magic wand that turns into a bouquet of flowers. Later, there is a scene where Sophie gasps while watching Arthur murder Murray on television.
But what is Sophie’s larger role in the context of the movie? Because aside from being the one person who doesn’t treat Arthur like garbage, she is thinly drawn. If Joker is Taxi Driver lite, does Beetz occupy the Cybil Shepherd role or the Jodie Foster role? Is she someone to save or someone to fall in love with?
A main reason for the thinly drawn supporting characters is the film’s insistence on telling the story through Arthur’s POV. But I can’t help but feel like the film would be better served by fleshing out the supporting characters. After all, Zazie Beetz is a talented actress who spend the film largely as window dressing, saying and doing hardly anything at all.
(via Pajiba, image: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros)
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