Bizarre characters always cause some fascination because they fulfil a versatile function: they serve as a mirror of our suffering and a punching bag for our anger.
And Joker is that: a victim and a criminal. But Arthur Fleck is a schizophrenic.
The break between Arthur and Joker is the path of a life that begins with a child born in a disorganised and hostile reality, goes through a traumatised adult without an identity, and ends in a character who rescues him from his suffering. He feels no pain: he is pain.
They present Arthur as a clown, with sad life circumstances and living with mental illness (unspecified).
His psychological condition has two determining symptoms: uncontrollable nervous laughter and delusional fantasies.
His laughter is not just a mere “laugh not to cry”. It arises when he faces a situation that causes him emotional discomfort, not necessarily sadness.
Throughout the film Arthur lives, as long as he remembers, with a self-image of “defective”. He then grows to question all his feelings: they are all the result of failure, they are not valid.
He does not then have legitimacy to be angry when insulted, to cry when saddened: he has no legitimacy to “feel”. All that remains is to hold it inside and bear the feeling of helplessness.
Laughter comes as an involuntary discharge of all the tension it accumulates and is already humanly impossible to bear.
The delusions arise to create an alternative reality, the result of the feeling of powerlessness to change the unbearable reality he lives in.
Arthur lives with his mother, Penny. She is a caring but emotionally fragile lady.
She treats her son as “Happy“, an affectionate name for his uncontrollable laughter problem, telling him that “he was born to make others laugh”. It is an empathic attitude, but validates and reinforces his identity of “defective person”. One justification for becoming a clown and aspiring stand-up comedian is that same argument: born to make others laugh. It is an identity that is not spontaneous and autonomous, it is inherited, and no one gives it the proper value.
Another key character for his transformation is a talk show host Murray Franklin. Arthur admires him from a young age, and is delighted that he can watch the live show, where he has the spotlight and Murray’s empathy.
Penny and Murray (even if in delirium) are comforting figures because they empathize with their “flaw” and convey a sense of trust.
What makes Arthur into Joker?
There are three defining moments for his metamorphosis.
The movie begins with Arthur being assaulted by a group of teenagers and being blamed by his boss for lying in the story he tells. A colleague offers him a pistol to defend himself. Arthur is uncomfortable with the pistol because he is afraid to handle it, and he is not by nature an aggressive person, despite being in many revolting situations (before which he does not feel entitled to defend himself).
In a later aggression, in which he is wearing his clown uniform, in a push for survival Arthur uses his pistol against the aggressors. The news report an assassin clown, which unleashes a social movement of clown-masked protesters revolting against the system.
This is Arthur’s first moment of validation: he is now recognized. He was not actually acknowledged, but the result of an accidental episode serves as a fantasized solution to justify that it is no longer irrelevant or powerless.
All the anger he has buried inside him over a lifetime now emerges as hatred.
Another defining moment comes when Arthur watches television host Murray Franklin enjoy the video of a stand-up comedy show he tried when he was fired. Joker, that’s what he called him. After all, this man who (deliriously) liked him was a traitor who also ridiculed him.
Another reason to hate everything and everyone.
The culmination of his identity is when he discovers his mother’s clinical records, which violently confront him with the reality that they had lied him about his past. Penny had been hospitalised in an insane asylum, and it was a negligent mother who subjected him to unimaginable mistreatment by a former partner. She was not a “holy” mother, she was a “devil” mother. He wants to destroy all the pain he feels at that moment, destroying who caused it: he kills his mother, who is the pain. For him, there is no difference between inner world and outer world.
He isn’t the sick, he was right about all the hate he was feeling!
The moment of public presentation of the metamorphosis is the moment in which he goes to Murray’s program as a guest. He goes there to destroy Him, as he did with his mother, sarcastically adopting the name by which they mocked him: Joker!
Arthur now only knows what hatred is, a feeling that can only attack and destroy, does not allow rebuilding the old and building the new.
Arthur was born with an identity inherited from “sick”. He was not fortunate enough to know the experience of healthy love, the feeling that overcomes suffering. From the casualties of life he inherited the name of Joker, and an impromptu identity of an almighty clown capable of moving people.
Arthur stitches like a patchwork his new identity, created not by meaning but by random moments when he feels powerful. Involuntarily he became an aggressor like those he hated. He doesn’t want to destroy everyone, just those who mistreated him. Unfortunately, in his fantasy, the good ones no longer exist.
Joker is the “salvation” of his schizophrenia. It is the embodiment of hatred: he is no longer irrelevant or impotent.
Understanding crimes does not excuse them, but allows us to deal with the people who commit them humanely.
Hate does not cure hate.