One of many brilliant things in Todd Phillip’s superlative film, The Joker, is the way in which it keeps us guessing until close to the end as to whether or not the film actually belongs to the comic book universe at all or is it simply a tale of one poor man’s terrible isolation and eventual breakdown. Joachim Phoenix as Arthur Fleck (the dictionary definition of Fleck being ‘a small speck of something’ informing us of Arthur’s lack of importance in this universe) aids this conceit by embodying delusion and isolation superbly. Everything about his character is delusional and lost in fantasy. He believes he has a loving mother who has his best interests in mind, but the reality is she is a chronic narcissist living her own delusion that a wealthy industrialist loves her and will one day come for her. Arthur is also pursuing a desperate career as a clown and has dreams of becoming a stand up, neither of which he is suited for, so imprisoned is he in his own dysfunctional world of poor attachment. He goes out into the world in search of validation and acceptance but finds only violent and humiliating rejection at every turn. He day -dreams of appearing on his favourite talk show and being lovingly embraced (both familially and professionally) by the cynical, creepy host, played by DeNiro, in fine form as an empty, spiritually dead show business ghoul. Everything poor Arthur touches turns to shit, in an anti alchemical nightmare.
So is this movie part of the Batman series or is it a study of one man’s descent into mental illness? Early on in the film we might suppose that Arthur’s dream of becoming a clown and a comic is a part of his delusion and that the idea that he could ultimately become the terrifying Joker figure from other Batman films is just another of his fantasies, unlikely to have much meat on its bones, like the impoverished Arthur himself, all skin and bones. Normally in Batman films the Joker appears in a scene as a terrifying psychopath, chewing the scenery and putting everybody on edge or in the morgue, a figure from the heart of Bruce Wayne’s own shadow, exploding into murderous technicolour. In this film, right until the end, Arthur’s every appearance encourages us to think that this man has victim written all over him and that any criminal acts perpetrated by him would be accidental and circumstantial rather than pathological, such as when he rescues a girl on the subway by killing her three assailants almost by chance rather than design. When he goes to try to talk to and confront the man he believes to be his father his ineffectiveness and rejection are painful to watch.
But slowly we see the growth of something more malignant in his psyche as he realises the effect his mother’s own mental instability and delusions has had on his own life. He begins to see that all of the people in his life are malign in influence rather than supportive, and even the vaguely well meaning become something bad as a result. Every potential good object or validator ultimately become persecutory and his environment a minefield of misery. The scales truly fall from his eyes when he realises the DeNiro character is not the loving, nurturing surrogate father of his t.v. dreams, but another violator, only interested in him as a figure of ridicule to be abused and made fun of. Laughed at, not with.
Abuse and neglect are the twin pillars of Arthur’s experiential reality and the message is clear. This is what creates the psychopath, not some out -moded idea of an inherent ‘evil’ but a truly terrible environment, bereft of good objects. Arthur’s criminal persona of the deranged clown, having been in place all along, suddenly transforms itself from something pathetic to something terrifying. As a representation of the false self, the character of Arthur/Joker does a good job on two counts. Arthur minus make up is all-ready a false self personified as a result of poor attachment, attempting to remain cheerful in his nightmare world with a pathetic smile, his terrible humourless laugh and desperate need to be loved. Don the clown make and the journey from pathetic needy loser to terrifying psychopath slowly unfurls before our eyes transformatively. Arthur is truly a split personality, double, treble split. Andbeing so split from his true self he becomes able to act out the most horrific of acts with the flourish of a song and dance man.
Having spent the first three quarters of the film charting the journey of Arthur to Joker the film does something clever and seemingly becomes a proper comic book movie in the final reel, with Arthur/Joker finally claiming his power, and suddenly becoming something to be reckoned with in an orgy of violence and death. This is when the director gives us the obligatory flash- back we are used to in Batman films, of the killing of Bruce Wayne’s parents by a criminal. But in this case it is not just a random act by ‘degenerate’ criminals, but a more fleshed out explanation of consequence as Joker’s children, the mob of clowns running riot in the city in response to Arthur’s actions create a space for Arthur to break free and transform into the Joker. Or are these final scenes just possibly a manifestation of his damaged, deranged psyche and imaginary? The final scene of the film finds Arthur/Joker in a mental hospital, supposedly as a result of his carnage, suggesting that some of his actions really happened. Or did they, and is the mental hospital just a metaphor?