Joker is, at its heart, a movie about awakening. Proverbial loser, Arthur Fleck, finds himself gradually coming into a new type of sanity as the delusions of his world unravel before him and he becomes the infamous Joker.
Freedom is destruction
From the beginning of Joker, we see Arthur as a victim. The very first scene is that of Arthur being unknowingly oblivious to the true nature of the world. He slings his sign upon the busy streets of Gotham and dances merrily to the music of street performers.
It is here we witness the movie’s first act of violence. Arthur is attacked by a band of marauding teenagers who steal his sign and eventually brutalize him in an alley. He is portrayed as a helpless victim and has come to except that “a victim,” is the role that life has planned for him. However, one gets the impression that, this violent act isn’t meant to be a specific aggression against Arthur, but rather that of a harsh invitation to view the world as it truly is…. a world where violence is inevitable.
Not only is the city he inhabits overrun by crime, and ripe for revolution, but almost every person on the ground level seems to believe that this is the way the world is meant to be. The only outliers are the rich, embodied by Thomas Wayne, who are out of touch.
To this point, Arthur is as his name would suggest… A. Fleck (no. not Affleck… sorry I had to) an insignificant piece of something to be brushed off. He has delusions of grandeur and visions of the life that could be, but he cannot seem to fit into the world that is. The idea of violence is not foreign in this world but he truth is that it is Arthur’s idea of happiness that is foreign. He is seen as naive and his victimization is a natural conclusion of naivety.
When Randall, a coworker, gives Arthur a gun and encourages him to protect himself from future attacks, it begins to fuel Arthur’s imagination about his place in the violence. This gun becomes the vehicle by which Arthur perpetrates his crimes and it’s continued evolution in Arthur’s mind should be of note. The gun is the fruit in Arthur’s garden and it allows him to awaken his full potential.
Here enters a potential love interest for Arthur. Her involvement is minimal in truth, but her place as inspiring Arthur to evolve cannot be understated. Sophie’s consent to his growth is of utmost importance to Arthur. This is illustrated by Arthur’s fantasy that begins when Sophie (notably derived from the Greek term Sophia and the Gnostic character and harbinger of spiritual awakening) at one point mimes a violent suicidal act as a way of commiserating about the state of Gotham.
This inspires Arthur and he repeatedly mimes this act as an inside joke between them. Throughout the film, we begin to see Sophie encourage him through his metamorphosis. This begins to apex after he makes his first kill. An event that causes Arthur to a point of sexual arousal, which she gratifies. She is his cheerleader. But not is all at it seems. She is an unstable narrator… a delusion. He has shaped a one time encounter with a neighbor in the elevator into a prop for his fantasies. He is not awakening and blossoming through relationship but instead is fantasizing and retreating further into his mind.
Though Arthur is awakening to the world of violence through outright homicide, he still hasn’t embraced his place in the world fully. The homicides in the subway are more crimes of passion that are reactions to bullying than a full premeditated participation in the world of Gotham. Though it is true that Arthur kills the bankers from a sense of self preservation and even anger, he hasn’t yet come to see the violent act as desirable. Later, he skews the narrative with a hindsight musing that they deserved to die. This of course, wasn’t why he acted, but rather how he justified it.
As various acts of violence are perpetrated against him, Arthur comes to a tipping point wherein he is no longer sees himself as a victim but a participant. He comes to believe that he will have a place in the ultimate meaning of his world if he can die in a way that gives clarity to his life, and he fantasizes about killing himself in front of an audience… using the same mimery that Sophie gave to him As noted in his joke book/diary, we are drawn to his scribbles that this will make his death mean something.
The culmination of this is in the final talk show scene where Arthur, now Joker, kills his imagined comedian father. This happens after he rereads those thoughts, “I hope my death will make more cents than my life. (written, of course, with carefully placed homonym for added craziness)” There is of course a joke in here, as he comes to realize that his life doesn’t make sense and so neither should his own death. This leaves Arthur with one conclusion. He ought to do what he wants to do. Since he is angry and incensed by Murray Franklin, why not kill him?
Here the transformation becomes complete as Arthur, as the Joker, no longer seeks to make any sense from his life but instead makes another leap from a mere reactionary participant in the violence to a full on perpetrator of the violence. This is the full circle of the Joker movie.
The violent act in the streets of Gotham that started the movie ends with another violent act, which is overlayed by Fleck’s musing that this is the joke. The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in crime alley is the direct result of the violence perpetrated against all of Gotham’s citizens. Fans will know that it will also birth the violent vigilante Batman. He too will participate in the violence and shirk the system that seeks to control it.
The man who was a victim of the system, was invited to join it, has now conquered it and is now it’s king… or its joker. And like a joker, Arthur is now a wild card. His destruction of his own reality, realized in the murder of his comedic idol has freed him to create his own reality rather than to have reality created for him.
Though it is true that breaking free of a system frees us from that system’s constraints. Arthur Fleck’s world view is the idea that violence is the only system. The narrative painted is only able to paint a construct wherein violence is the only reality by stating that all reality is delusion. But if it is true that all reality is illusion, than violence as a construct cannot be trusted. At the end of the movie, we learn that Arthur is in an asylum (hopefully Arkham) and this makes sense as throughout the movie, it is clear that Arthur is an unstable narrator. He doesn’t understand what is happening in the real world. To this end, neither does the viewer. It is plausible that the entire Joker movie took place in Arthur’s mind. Participation and eventually perpetration of violence didn’t actually free Arthur. All that it did was remove the burden to operate in the real world. One could argue that having a feeling of not belonging and not understanding why is better than having a feeling of belonging and not caring if it’s true. Either way violence only leads to freedom, if freedom is taken to mean a total lack of uncertainty about definitions of life. Perhaps the walls of Arthur’s mind are far enough part to call that freedom, but the four walls of an asylum contain someone who is far from free to be a whole person.
There is no truth
In Joker, there is no reliable truth. Practically everyone is lying to him. This is best exemplified by his Mother’s lie about his origins… namely that he was adopted.
Those who were not lying are delusional at best or hypocrites at worst. The main people to let him down in this way are his mother with her delusion of being Thomas Wayne’s lover, his coworker Randall who sets him up to lose his job, and Murray, who invites him on his show to make fun of him.
Those who are not lying or delusional or hypocrites are apathetic to him. This is seen in his relationship with his state prescribed social worker. He feels strongly that she does not hear him or care about him.
And lastly, and possibly most profoundly, it is notable that Arthur Fleck is trapped in his own mind and regularly lies to himself about the truth of his situations and relationships. Nothing can be trusted.
Humans are unstable narrators. Even the best intentioned ones are hypocrites. This is precisely the reason why we need something that is revelatory (from outside our system) to be able to make heads or tails of what is reality.
However, we are not without hope. There is logic and rules of induction that can help us to navigate the world around us and their is experience that we can learn from. Arthur compounded his problem’s by choosing to fantasize and dissassociate rather than face the facts and draw conclusions based on evidence.
So though it is true that you can’t trust anyone in the context of themselves, thankfully, we have many things from which to gain context and glean truths.
It is of course a fallacy to say that there is no truth. This is itself a truth.
We are the victims of our circumstances
Joker is that curious piece of art which tells the abused that they are at fault for their abuse. Arthur’s journey through the film is one of awakening and transcendance to a version of himself where in he never was a victim, he was just merely ignorant of the truth, which is that the only victims are those who wish to remain in a system that can victimize them. He goes one step further to conclude that those people deserve to be victimized.
Murray questions Arthur as to whether he is just making excuses. The truth is that he is. He claims the bankers deserved to be murdered, in a system he believes is of a person’s own making. Since the bankers were the bullies and not victims in their own minds, this doesn’t make sense. The truth is that Arthur wanted to murder them.
Arthur was never the victim of his own story despite how he was portrayed. He chose to take the steps he did because he didn’t like how he was being treated. He hid his own visceral reactions to these things and his feelings of guilt about the consequences behind delusions of grandeur in which he was aware of a truth that others were not… namely that his violence is justifiable in a city that is by nature violent.
This ideology is betrayed when he doesnt’ kill his friend Gary. His reasoning is simple. Gary is the only one who never treated him badly. But this reasoning betrays how Arthur truly feels. It should be noted here that Gary is a little person who is constantly made fun of on the basis of his height. That being said, Gary is nice to Arthur. Nonetheless, victims are those of there own making and when they are mistreated, it is because they allow it.
So why does Arthur allow Gary to live? Gary is a victim and victims create the world in which they are victims. Therefore they are deserving of every bad thing that comes to them. According to this worldview, Gary should have deserved to die. But by Arthur’s own words, Gary had never wronged him… ergo… he didn’t deserve to die.
This is the flaw of Arthur’s worldview. Arthur’s victims are not victims of their own circumstances but rather victims of another persons emotional state. Even in the death of Murray the comedian, we can see that Arthur’s decision to kill him was based on deeming him guilty of hypocrisy. This hypocrisy comes from the seat of the rich and famous who are abusers, but not victims.
The truth is that Arthur is not a victim of circumstances but rather a jealous man with a gun who doesn’t merely want for the victimizing to stop, or even to be normal. He wants to be an abuser. He wants the power and the fame. He chooses his victims based upon how they treat him and not how they live their lives. His standard for someone’s deserval of his violence is arbitrary, not based on their merit but instead based on his feeling in that moment.
Joker wants us to believe that he is a victim of his circumstances and that he is a foregone conclusion of his environment. The truth is that we are more than determined. We make choices in time and space about who we are going to be. Arthur Fleck wants us to excuse and even commiserate with his Joker persona as being the only rationale truth but then he betrays that persona by allowing for a reciprocity. This is not a consistent worldview. Arthur is right in that we often play the victim and get what we deserve when doing so, but he is wrong in thinking that this excuses his behavior. Murray was right, Arthur was an abuser because he was tired of being a victim. He could’ve just as easily chose to be an advocate like Gotham’s other famous citizen, or dare I say it…. made light of the situation by being an actually funny guy. We are not determined, we choose.
All these things said, I generally loved the artistry of the movie. It is rare to see a movie in this day and age, so well made. I found myself genuinely questioning where Joaquin Phoenix stands in the line up of crown princes. My conclusion is that he doesn’t. The truth is that without hope, this is a world where Batman would never evolve. If I was to predict an honest sequel to Joker, it would feature a Batman who lacks any sense of reason to his crusade. That is, unless, the events of Joker are retold from a point of narrative stability. The thing about Joker is that he is a myth, not a person. He is best understood that way. Arthur Fleck is not Joker in the traditional sense, he is a repackaged Narrator transitioning into Tyler Durdin. Joker is the new Fight Club…. sssshhh.
It works as a movie the way that a forest fire works in a fireplace. It is at the same time powerful and beautiful as it is ill advised.
From a Christian perspective, i can see the image of God… but only despite being told that it is not present. If you need to see a technically beautiful movie, I would recommend it. If you want to see a movie that lifts the soul or elevates our hearts to inspiration, I would avoid it. To that end, it is senseless pandering to a small ideology.
For all of it’s pomp and circus, we never really see the Joker. Instead we see Arthur Fleck, a sad and mentally ill man, who lives in a padded room. We are treated to a masterfully crafted story about the loss of his humanity, only to be led to believe that humanity was just a joke to begin with. The joke is on us if we decide to immortalize this journey by climbing into it with him.