The Joker is a hard movie to write about, it is so dense and interconnected that to explore its themes in a linear fashion, as one must in a blog post, is a daunting task. To chase one theme, one sub narrative or idea is to ignore all others, and for that reason, every analysis is only grasping at parts, illuminating some bits, while leaving much unexplored. I believe movies are best analyzed in conversation, where a more probing, circular, approach is possible. Thats not what I did here, instead, I tried to reconstruct the narrative of the movie by chasing down some of the key thematic threads. I’ll leave the reader to decide how illuminating this is. Spoilers ahead, you have been warned.
Arthur Flak lives a hard life. He suffers from a medical condition “causing sudden, frequent and uncontrollable laughter,” especially when he is feeling anxious. This leads to all kinds of misunderstandings. Arthur is often misunderstood and abused by others. He is called a freak and a weirdo, his job as a clown fits with his position as an outsider and reject. One of the first scenes in the movie is of Arthur dressed as a dancing clown, holding a sign advertising a local store. The sign is ripped out of his hands by a group of young men. Arthur chases after them—managing remarkable speed in his giant clown shoes—only to be hit over the head with his own sign and beat up in an alleyway. Arthur’s boss blames Arthur for losing the sign. We watch Arthur make a child laugh, only to spook the mother with his involuntary laughter. Arthur is willing to bear the abuse. He apologizes for his condition to the mother, and when a co-worker describes his attackers as “a bunch of savages,” Arthur dismisses the incident, blaming himself: “it just bunch of kids, I should have left them alone.”
Arthur struggles to conform to society, and to make friends, to live a happy and fulfilled life. He struggles to be in touch with reality. Early on, he asks his psychiatrist to increase his dose of medication because “I just don’t want it to feel so bad anymore.“ In his journal he writes: “The worst part about mental illness is that you must act as if you don’t.” Indeed, a plot that runs throughout the film is Arthur struggling with the tension between his own view of the world and what “everyone on TV says.” Are Arthur’s jokes funny even if no one else laughs? Can he kill even if the law tries to stop him? Does he have a condition or is he normal? More on this later.
He is told by everyone around him that he is a freak, a clown, that he has a “condition.” Others seem to be happy, funny, to be able to hold down a job and make friends, but Arthur can do none of these things. He says at one point, “I have never been happy for a minute in my life.” In this way, Arthur’s job as a clown—a bringer of joy and laughter—conflicts ironically with his depression. Like the faithless and hopeless pastor in First Reformed, whose white robe masks a black heart, Arthur’s smile is one that has been painted on. Both perform a job they cannot live, they act out what they cannot believe, they offer what they cannot give and desperately need themselves. A hopeless pastor who tries to instil hope in others. A joyless clown who tries to bring joy to others. His job as a clown is a mask for the despair he really feels,
And yet, there a few guiding lights in Arthur’s life. One, is his aging mother, whom we see Arthur caring for tenderly. There is a scene where he is giving her a bath, another where he cuts up her food and then sits down to watch TV with her. When she has a stroke, he is obviously devastated, and sits at her bedside in the hospital all night. Arthur loves his mother, and she seems to love him.
Another person who loves Arthur is his girlfriend. A woman who finds him funny, is delighted by his company and is always there for him in difficult times. At the hospital, she is there, sitting next to Arthur. More on her later.
A third key figure for Arthur is Murray Franklin, host of the “Live with Murray Franklin Show.” Murray is everything Arthur aspires to be, rich, successful, funny and popular. Arthur’s mother told him as a child that he would grow up to “spread joy and laughter,” and Murray is the embodiment of this. His show, brings joy and laughter, not just to his live audience, but also for Arthur and his mother. Arthur genuinely seems to admire Murray and seems to aspire to be like him. In one scene, Arthur imagines himself being called onstage by Murray who praises him and embraces him warmly. Murray seems to be almost a father figure for the fatherless Arthur.
Arthur aspires, like Murray, to be a stand-up comedian, but his jokes disturb rather than amuse. Early on, his psychiatrist reads a joke from his notebook: “I hope my death makes more cents than my life.” His struggle with being funny is connected to his struggle with fitting into society, with his struggle with reality. His jokes, like his life, are absurd, they point out profound suffering, while simultaneously making light of these horrific situations. Indeed, the entire movie leaves the viewer with a similar mix of disquiet, revulsion, pity and humour. This is a tension throughout the film, Arthur is a character that invokes pity, but at the same time, there is something funny, humorous, absurd, about what happens. And yet, the humour is never pure or legitimate, it is always tainted by the macabre.
Perhaps the scene which most acutely captures this absurdity is one where Arthur, dressed as a clown sits on the floor, splattered with the blood of a former co-worker whom he has just murdered with a pair of scissors. In the far end of the room, a “midget” shudders, looking at Arthur with fear and horror. Arthur tells him he can leave. The “midget” obliges, but realizes the door is latched, up too high for him to reach. With terror, he is forced to ask the blood splattered Arthur to let him out. Arthur apologizes and unlatches the door. As he leaves, Arthur kisses him on the head and tells him “You were the only one that was ever nice to me.” The scene is pitiful, macabre but tainted with an absurd humour one cannot laugh at.
What’s going on here? Why can’t we laugh at the “midget” or at Arthur’s jokes? Have we been so conditioned by our “politically correct society”? Is it the fact that these jokes reveal a shocking, horrifying reality that makes us uncomfortable, a reality which we dare not laugh at? Do these jokes shock us out of our complacency? I don’t really know the answer. The line between the funny and the horrifying is always a blurry one that shifts depending on context. Also, what does laughter signify? What are we saying about reality or about ourselves when we find funny what the Joker finds funny? These questions get to the heart of the film.
The first major turning point in the film occurs when Arthur is suddenly fired from his job as a Clown for dropping a gun while performing at a children’s hospital. Dejected, he heads home on the subway, still dressed in his clown suit. It is comical and pitiful scene: the dejected clown sitting and staring out the window. When Arthur is bullied and attacked by 3 young Wall Street lawyers, he finally snaps. As the men jump on him, he pulls out his gun and shoots his attackers. He kills two and injures a third who manages to escape the train car. Arthur, still in the clown suit, chases after him and shoots him multiple times in the back. Arthur runs away from the scene and slips into the apartment he shares with his mother. Inside, Arthur falls into a slow dance. It is his victory dance.
A fundamental shift has taken place in him, for the first time in his life he feels empowered. He has stood up to the tyrants, he has confronted the bullies, he has finally fought back against the society that has destroyed his life. For the first time, he has ceased to conform, to accept the reality society gives him, for the first time, he has asserted his will, his way, his reality. The clown, the outsider, the “freak,” is no longer taking the oppression lying down, he no longer sees himself as the “freak.” Society is the real freak; it oppresses people like Arthur, and illegitimately forces them to conform to its standards. Arthur has seen through the system, its naked power has been unmasked and he is finally asserting his own will. With his new found strength, Arthur kisses the woman he has had his eyes on. He quits his job in style. He tells his psychiatrist: “For my whole life I didn’t know if I even really existed, but I do, and people are starting to notice.” Arthur has become Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, he has asserted his will, and stands out of the crowd.
On TV, Thomas Wayne, a rich businessman running for mayor is asked about the killings. Hearing that there has been a “groundswell of anti-rich sentiment,” and a popular movement siding with the killer, Wayne, dismisses the protesters as “clowns.” “Those of us,” Wayne says, “who made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t made anything of their lives as nothing but clowns.” With this comment, Wayne, and the rich upper class he represents, are unmasked. We see the clear loathing and contempt that the elites have for the poor. One thinks of Hillary Clinton’s infamous description of Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables,” the resonances between the rise of Trump and the Joker seem too obvious to ignore. Chris Arnade writes helpfully about the difference between “front row” and “back row” America. Front Row America is the world of the liberal elites, the rich and the white colour. Back row America is the world of the working class and the poor. These are two different worlds. The Joker is in part and exploration of the tensions, dysfunctions and mutual loathing between front row and back row. The Joker’s climactic speech on the Murray Show captures these sentiments:
“I killed those guys because they were awful… Why is everyone so upset about these guys? If it was me dying on the sidewalk you would pass right over me! I pass you every day on the sidewalk and you don’t notice me. But these guys, why, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?… have you seen what its like out there Murray, do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other, nobody’s civil anymore, nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. Do you think men like Thomas Wayne ever think about what it’s like to be someone like me, to be somebody but themselves? They don’t, they think we’ll just sit there, and take it, like good little boys, that we won’t werewolf and go wild!”
What Wayne’s comment about the “clowns” who cannot “make anything of their lives,” reveals is the elite obliviousness to the plight of the poor and the inability to recon with their own compliancy. As Arthur’s psychologist tells him after social programs in the city have been cut, “they don’t give a shit about people like you.”
As the film continues, Arthur becomes completely disillusioned. All around him masks slip. He realizes that he lives in an absurd world, a world without love, a world of nothing but power and oppression. When Arthur looks into his past, he discovers that his mother has been lying to him. He is not her child, he is not the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne as his “narcissistic and delusional” mother had told him. As a child, his “mother” had stood by while her boyfriend abused him. Having deconstructed his past, Arthur realizes there has never been any love, only lies, and rootlessness. The woman he has been serving, much like the society he has been conforming to, turns out to be his oppressor. The cause of his ills, the reason for his mental illness—his abusive mother—is the very person he has been tenderly supporting for years. As he discovers this about his past, Arthur also realizes he has been deluding himself about his girlfriend. He never had a girlfriend, he had only been imagining it. She was never there at the hospital, never laughing at his jokes, never there, leaning into his kiss. Even Murray, his hero from TV, lets the mask slip. On his show, Murray plays a clip of Arthur’s failed stand-up comedy debut, mocking Arthur and calling him a “Joker.”
It is from this complete disillusionment, that the Joker is born. Arthur lives in a world devoid of love, nobody loves him. His mother has been exposed as an abuser, his girlfriend as an illusion, Murray as one of the contemptuous elites. In a highly symbolic act, Arthur smothers his mother in a pillow. Nature and Nurture have failed him, they have formed the monster he is. He is oppressed by the system, by society, by his own biology, indeed by reality itself. But, he resolves, he will stand against it all. He will assert his will, he will fight the system, and he will fight reality. As he says later “I’ve got nothing left to loose, nothing can hurt me anymore, and my life is nothing but a comedy.” If all of reality has conspired against him, he could take the disempowering route of submitting to its blows, “like a good little boy.” Or, he could stand his ground like the “werewolf”; he could bend reality to his will. He is done trying to conform, he is tired of being called the freak, and he is not the freak: everything else is the freak. He tells his mother before he kills her: “Penny Flak, I always hated that name, you used to tell me, that my laugh was a condition, that there was something wrong with me. There isn’t. That’s the real me.”
There is a scene that captures the Joker’s approach to reality. He is being interrogated outside the hospital by two police officers; he breaks off the interrogation and tells them he has to go. He strides purposefully towards the entrance and walks straight into glass door, its marked “Exit.” “That’s the exit,” a helpful police officer remarks, “You can’t go in there.” The Joker makes no response, as he fumbles to activate the sensor which isn’t there; a woman walks through the exit door. The Joker slips around the woman and enters the building by the exit. Though nature and nurture push against him, he defies their rules.
The climax of the movie is when the Arthur is invited to appear on the Murray Franklin Show. He arrives; dressed as a clown, because of the clown riots taking place in Gotham city, (spurred by Arthur’s killing of the 3 young men) Murray is concerned that Arthur is making a political statement. Arthur assures him he isn’t, “I don’t believe in any of that” he tells Murray, “I don’t believe in anything.” There is no cause Arthur is attaching himself to at this point. He doesn’t believe in justice, he doesn’t believe in humanity, or truth, or society, he has lost all faith in everything. Arthur tells Murray to introduce him as “Joker,” after all, that’s what Murray called him on his show. What was meant by Murray and Thomas Wayne as an insult, has been turned on its head by the Joker, he has embraced his position as the outsider: he is the clown, the deplorable, the looser, and there is nothing wrong with it. Why? Because he rejects the judgements of the elites, he has had enough of their oppression and it is time to turn the tables.
On Murray’s show, the Joker shocks the audience by introducing himself as the killer of the 3 young men. The Joker declares that he finds the deaths of these three men funny, and he is “tired of pretending it is not.” An entire movie of failed jokes reaches its climax here, as the Joker decides that contrary to what everyone thinks, he is funny. The same system that is oppressing him and the other “clowns,” the same system that decides what is right and wrong, also decides what is funny, or not: “comedy is subjective.. all of you, this system that knows so much decides what’s right and wrong, the same way you decide what’s funny or not.” Even his “mother,” who asked early on, “but don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” was exposed as being part of the same, oppressive system.
And yet, we’re back to the question we asked earlier, is the Joker funny? Jokes put us in touch with reality. There is something deeply honest about a well told Joke and our response to it. We cannot help but laugh, the truth comes out in snorts and giggles. Can the Joker ever force the world to laugh at him?
The Joker ends the show with one final joke, a joke which captures the whole movie in one sentence. “What do you get,” the Joker asks Murray, “When you cross a mentally ill loser with a society that has abandoned him and treats him like trash?” Pulling out his gun, the Joker shoots Murray as he shouts: “You get what you F**ing deserve!” The Joker is the funniest one in the end. The clowns have toppled the elites and the clowns now get to decide what is “right and wrong” and what is “funny or not.”
To me as a Kierkegaardian, there is something, attractive at some level about the Joker’s brave last stand against society and reality. In a strange, inverted fashion, his venture of “there is nothing left to loose,” mirrors the movement of faith which gives up the world to gain it again. There is something profoundly true about his stand against the oppressive system, his recognition that it is the powerful that subject us to their own self-created reality. And yet, the Joker is a character utterly devoid of Love, and utterly enslaved to his own illusions which he has confused with freedom. Of course, the Joker cannot Love because he has never been Loved and he finds freedom in “being himself” because no one ever made space for him. However, it is for these reasons that we cannot take the Joker’s moralizing all that seriously. It is deeply ironic to hear the psychopathic killer screaming that “no one is civil anymore.” The elites stand naked before us, but the Joker has no way out of the power games because he has no Love. There is nothing left for the Joker but revenge, resentment and the power of death. Indeed, it is the lack of Love that is most striking about this entire film, there is not one person who loves the Joker, and the only person who shows anything resembling Love throughout the film, is the Joker. Love is what holds the world together and when love fades, the world falls apart. The chaotic riot scenes at the end of the movie show a world that has lost its Love. If there is no Love, only will remains. There is only one way out of these power games and that path is the way of the Cross, the way of self-death and self-giving Love. Only through the self-giving Love of the Cross, can a new world, a new way of life be brought into being.
“Owe no one anything except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”