It is hard to not be transfixed by the perfectly flamboyant cadence of Arthur Fleck once he is fully morphed into the iconic anarchist we all have come to know. Though there is no denial that Joaquin Phoenix elevated this character to astronomical heights, the film itself, at its core, is concerned with deconstructing the myth behind Gotham’s ghoul of Chaos. Forcing the audience to see beyond the seductive grimace of nihilism and stare into the eyes of a broken man drowning in apathy and trapped in a life of silent desperation.
At the surface, the plot of this film may seem like a rather simple and tired cliche, where the premise of having just one bad day can lead anyone to fracture their own sanity and be consumed by the volatility of breaking the shackles of a lifetime of repression. But, unlike many other critics, it is my belief that Todd Phillips’ vision is not simply a rip-off from better films by Martin Scorsese. Taxi Driver and the King of Comedy both depict the unequivocal dangers of isolated and rejected men striving for grandiosity at the cost of their own sanity. And though this film explores similar motifs, at the center of the narrative lies the unfiltered humanity of our protagonist, Arthur Fleck. And this, in myopinion, is what makes this film’s message far more potent and pertinent of our times than its predecessors. And it is no mistake that old and new media as a whole ravaged our screens, howling about the menace behind this film. During an era where a few secluded and disturbed young men have the inclination to commit horrible and murderous acts to manifest their internal anguish and their hatred for the inescapable agony of existence; a film that barely delves into the depths of the psychology behind a person capable of such tremendous malevolence; is indeed an alarming message to a society who has replaced the tenets of its communal prosperity with an endless lust for vanity and prestige. This is why, the struggle of our protagonist is not that of a lack of unlimited wealth or the absent applause from seas of faceless crowds; Arthur, above all else, craves the most fundamental component behind the very meaning of our existence. Connection. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of this subdued desire to have a modicum of connection with anyone he comes across. Yet, every time he tries to do so, he is immediately shut down. Though there are many scenes that illustrate Arthur’s failed attempts to bond with those around him, there is a scene in particular that depicts the unmistakable apathy he endures on a daily basis. After Arthur murders those wall-street guys in the subway, he, for the first time, feels… alive. This was the very first time he confronted and retaliated against someone who crushed and belittled him. He conveys this newfound passion to his assigned social worker, [Video]. Unlike his initial meeting with this social worker, he is in complete control of his emotions; there is even a subtle glimmer on his eyes. He is finding meaning behind music, and unlike last time, where he reluctantly shared a minute section of his inner mind; this time he is almost joyfully unraveling his most precious thoughts, sharing the realization that he mattered, that he wasn’t just another faceless shadow amidst the masses. The social worker completely ignores him, and you can see the palpable disgust in his face, he even chuckles at the irony of her saying that they don’t give a damn about people like him… when clearly she is not giving a damn when he is outpouring his soul to the only person that had ever listened to anything he had to say. In my opinion, this is the tragedy of our protagonist; he, at a very early age, learned that he was doomed to live a life of complete seclusion; and the only way to earn a crumb of attention was through performance. Every single relationship he has with those around him is rooted in his ability to entertain them in one way or another, from complete strangers to his own mother, not to mention that in his delusions, the only way to receive a speck of affection is through entertainment. Which is, fundamentally, humiliating. Imagine the heartbreak and the toll it takes on your psyche to know that you are invisible to everyone around you, knowing that you are nothing but a vessel for a plastic mask, and knowing that every time you grab that jester’s hat; you are chiseling a piece of your very soul, until you realize that the mask you’ve been wearing your whole life, has more humanity than you ever did.
This is the torment Arthur has endured through the years. Throughout his entire life, he has been naught but an empty shell, a breathing ghost, drifting through hallowed streets, mourning the death of a man that had never truly lived. A man murdered at the cradle by the impotent rage of a fragile man and the freezing gaze of a mother that had never truly cared. And it was his mother, Penny Fleck, who had sealed his fate and distorted him into the oddity he had become. Arthur was nothing but a trinket for his mother from the very moment she decided to adopt him. During her youth, it’s obvious she decided to become a mother to fulfill her own emotional needs, but… there might be a very dark implication that perhaps she adopted him to try to extort and manipulate her former boss, Thomas Wayne, by trying to convince him that Arthur was his child, and perhaps, by doing this he would be compelled to be with her and elevate her into the upper echelons of Gotham’s aristocracy. However, once this ill-conceived plan failed, she came to the realization that she was trapped in a life of inescapable poverty;, and like any other narcissist, unable to blame herself and having no way to dispose of baby Arthur; her resentment and hatred for this helpless baby only intensified to the point that in her own twisted mind, she took satisfaction to watch the baby that had ruined her opportunity for a life of exuberant wealth… be savagely brutalized night after night. And this is why, in my opinion, Arthur was unable to develop a proper framework for a healthy relationship with a woman. His relationship with his mother, if we could call it so, embedded the idea, deep within his psyche, that bonding with a woman, or anyone for that matter, meant danger. For every time his mother established a romantic relationship with anyone else, it slowly morphed into a parade of cruelty beyond imagination. And it is no coincidence, that during the scene in the subway, when the wall-street guys were harassing this innocent woman, Arthur was presented with the classic scenario of the damsel in distress. But, unlike the cliche, where the hero bravely protects the petrified woman in need, and in return gains the affection of the fragile and beautiful maiden; Arthur utterly fails to fulfill this expectation. Yet, at the very end of this sequence, after he savagely hunted down those pricks; the very first thing he does when he returns home, is to head straight to his neighbor’s apartment and with a newly discovered confidence, he claims the woman he had desired all along. Murdering those Wallstreet guys, was almost like a write of passage; before this event he felt unworthy of even having the thought of looking at a woman; it was only after committing a brutal act of violence that he permitted himself to satiate his most primal cravings. Of course, as we all know by now, this scene was a complete fabrication of his own. Yet the point remains, thanks to his tumultuous upbringing he has molded a rather macabre portrait between love, sex, and violence. Hence, if you look carefully at some of his drawings, I guess we can call them that, we see overtly sexualized women, all disfigured and with drawings of death and extreme violence intermingled within their flesh. And this is how deep-rooted the influence of his mother is lodged within his mind. Now that Penny is at the twilight of her years, she is weak and decrepit; and now Arthur has to mold into a new utility for her, as a caretaker. Even at her old age, she continues to devour Arthur’s potential. And Arthur, just like any other son, has a powerful ingrained instinct to serve and gain the affection of a parental figure. .This is why, it seems to me, that every action and every decision he has ever taken, was to gain the approval of his disinterested mother. His dream of becoming a successful comedian is based on his mother’s love for the late-night show and its host, Franklin Murray. His mom’s needs are omnipresent in his mind, that is why when he envisions himself as part of the audience in this show, he pridefully declares that his priority is taking care of his mother, and we see an surprisingly positive reaction from Murray and the audience, confirming the nobility of this tremendous sacrifice he is making to fulfill his mother’s demands
Yet; intertwined in this hallucination, we also see that there is a hint of his personal desires. That of a paternal figure. Murray Franklin is the closest portrait of a father Arthur had ever had. That is why, after he uncovers the truth behind his adoption and the years of abuse; he is able to see his mother for the monster she truly was. He takes her life, just like she had taken his. With nothing left to lose, or to live for. He decides to attend the Murray Franklin show, even though he is fully aware that he will be ridiculed in front of millions of spectators. We soon learn that his plan, is to commit suicide on live television; thus fulfilling his dream of having a semblance of meaning behind his death. I believe Arthur chose to seal his fate in this sensational manner, not only for the immeasurable impact it would have on the audience, but specifically for the influence it would have on the only paternal figure he has left. Murray. The moment Arthur sat on the chair, he fully intended to end his life on that very day. His death, in his mind, was meant to be a gift. A gift wrapped by decades of misery, painted with the blood that was once imprisoned alongside the darkness within his mind. A gift of self-reflection. He wanted the viewers at home to turn off that tv after witnessing this gruesome event, and in the blackness of the screen; stare at themselves and for a second realize that they all were an active participant in a broken man’s torment. But primarily, he wanted a speck of dignity and sympathy from the father he never had, He could have shot himself, just as he had practiced, at the very beginning of the interview, yet; he chose not to… instead he grabbed his notebook almost as if he was waiting for something to happen. He was buying time. During this 4-minute scene, there was a hidden ferocious battle inside Arthur’s head. A battle between Arthur and his shadow. A battle that Arthur was desperately trying to win. Like I’ve said before, Arthur came to the show prepared to commit suicide, but I believe that somewhere in the depths of his subconscious there was a small glimmer of hope, that Murray would see the anguish behind his eyes, and embrace him like a son. He, however, quickly understood, that this was simply not happening. Murray, from the very beginning, capitalized at every single opportunity to humiliate him, thus suffocating whatever hope Arthur had for a shred of compassion. Arthur then confesses to the murders on the subway, and becomes enraged when Murray and the audience express more empathy towards them than they ever did about him. This is the moment where Arthur, consumed by rage and sorrow, makes his last attempt to persuade Murray to introspect and recognize the suffering he is inflicting upon him with this constant barrage of humiliation. Arthur, in a last outburst of brutal honesty, lets Murray know how awful of a man he truly is. Murray without a second of contemplation deflects all these accusations. This is where Arthur laughs to mask the pain from the realization that there is no salvation for the man he once thought of as a father. He recognizes that his death will be meaningless because Murray has no capacity to see his wrong-doings. Subsequently, this leads to the brash and sudden decision to aim the barrel at the one man who failed to rescue him from the precipice of a never-ending stream of misery. The moment Arthur squeezed that trigger is the moment he relinquished the little humanity he had left in him, and once he escapes a world that had brought him nothing but suffering, his shadow instantly possesses his corpse, thus resurrecting the ethereal phantom of chaos we all call: Joker.
There is a reason why the narrative of this film feels so…. Powerful. The life of Arthur Fleck was dictated by his struggle and eventual failure to transcend the immense trauma he was subjected to in his formative years. He had carried this dark secret for his entire adulthood, a secret so horrific he himself had buried it deep within his mind, a secret that kept him locked in a cold and dark sanctuary he had crafted for himself to numb the emotional turmoil he sustained on a daily basis. This is why you can’t help but smile with him once he assumes this Joker persona; The Joker, unlike Arthur, has no fear or shame from the intensity of these dreadful and disturbing emotions. In fact, he embellishes on the mayhem he had brought upon a city on the brink of collapse. The bliss plastered on his face is a mark for the liberation from the burden of his past. He had successfully recreated the chaos of his childhood, reconciling with the mental wounds he once desperately tried to obliterate and finding, once again, comfort in the taste of his own blood.