“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a clown to pay the bills. He takes care of his aging mother (Frances Conroy) and fantasizes about becoming a stand-up comedian like his hero, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). While battling a laugh-inducing neurological condition and fighting for social acknowledgement, Arthur’s clown persona begins to turn evil.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Clearly, he is socially isolated. This is partially due to circumstance – his mother is ill (is she, though?), and he works a lousy job to maintain a living situation. However, his social isolation is also in part because of his extremely awkward social behavior. He speaks in a childlike voice, dances and sways at inappropriate times, and laughs uncontrollably. He doesn’t even eat or sleep.
A rare, but invasive disorder, pseudobulbar affect is the fancy-pants medical name for uncontrollable laughter. It is a real symptom, often caused by a traumatic brain injury or caused by other brain disorders such as multiple sclerosis. Do you remember The Ice Bucket Challenge? I know; who could forget it? The Ice Bucket Challenge specifically sought to combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, one of the conditions Arthur could have, based on his pathological laughter.
This post is dedicated to fancy-pants medical terminology! Tardive dyskinesia is used to describe repetitive movements. Usually, these are bizarre movements of the face or body. They result from a person that takes anti-psychotic drugs long-term and can be permanent. When Arther sways, dances, or stretches in bizarre fashion, he could be exhibiting a form of tardive dyskinesia, caused by his long-term use of multiple psychiatric medications.
…is this a Joke?
On one level, Arthur is a deeply troubled man. An outcast from society, he craves social interaction and is thwarted by a disorder of the brain. His mother put him in a terrible position, one that forces him only to struggle, and never to rise above it all.
Maybe that’s what Arthur wants us to think.
On another level, Arthur has a blatant disregard for the thoughts or feelings of others. He knows that he is important. He strives for fame, at the expense of others’ emotional and physical well-being. He claims that he wants others to smile, but the truth is that he wants everyone who likes him to smile, and everyone else to squirm.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
There truly is nothing like a personality disorder to kick off February. People with antisocial personality disorder are more often known as sociopaths. While it is possible to have this disorder and not be a serial killer, it is unusual to be a serial killer and not have antisocial personality disorder. Arthur fits the mold.
Although we meet Arthur when he is under attack, the presence of a gun in his life emboldens him quickly. Not long after gaining firearm access, he starts shooting other people; he has pretty good aim for someone that only just started taking shots.
Lack of Remorse –
The man soon to be known as Joker tricks us here. We, the audience, feel remorse for him, but he does not show remorse for others. He murders his mother without a thought; doesn’t apologize to his neighbor for sneaking into her room; and is willing to murder a man he idolizes the second that he believes that Murray is making a joke at Arthur’s expense. Is this the joke – that Arthur can make fun of others, but they cannot make fun of him?
What we have here is a woefully unreliable narrator. Arthur paints himself a victim with the same skill that he paints his clown makeup. If you all remember back from the first post, Killer Legends, points on a clown face are too scary for children; Arthur has defined points on both of his eyes.
Arthur shows us that all he wants to do is be a stand-up comedian, but everyone makes fun of him for trying. Arthur shows us that Thomas Wayne is his father, just before he starts antagonizing Thomas’ son, Bruce. Arthur lets us see that his mother allowed him to be beaten at the hands of one of her boyfriends; Arthur lets us see that his mother lied to him about his father; naturally, Arthur shows us the details about his mother, right before he kills her. Of course, Thomas Wayne could have made Arthur’s mother cover up their affair, but this only makes us feel worse for Arthur.
If we take a look at Arthur’s show – and of course, he is always putting on a show where he is the center of attention – we start to see that he is deeply troubled, but not for the reasons he leads us to initially believe. The cracks in the foundation (and I think it is safe to say that this foundation is definitely cracked) are simple: Pseudobulbar affect and tardive dyskinesia are out of someone’s control. Arthur, however, is actually in control the whole time. He stretches and moves inappropriately because he likes making others uncomfortable; tardive dyskinesia usually affects a person’s face, but Arthur’s face is only distorted when he is laughing. An interesting thing to note is that when Arthur goes on Murray Franklin’s show, he is not laughing anymore. At a time when he is significantly stressed and literally under the lights, he suddenly has his wits about him – and he does not lose them again.
One pattern psychologists have tracked is that personality disorders tend to run in families. If Arthur’s mother exhibited narcissistic personality disorder, then the extended time she spent with her son could be responsible, partly, for his development of a personality disorder. The big problem here is that this does not account for Arthur’s movements or the laughter; these are due to something else. Arthur admits as much when he speaks to his mother for the last time. “You used to tell me that my laugh was a condition, that there was something wrong with me. There isn’t.” What does this mean? Does this mean that mom lied to her son about a chronic, uncomfortable laugh? Possibly. Does it mean…Arthur was faking it?
Why would he fake such a horrifying condition? Why would he explode into giggle fits that cause choking and grunting? Why would he contort his body and sway side to side for no apparent reason? If he is faking pseudobulbar affect and tardive dyskinesia – thereby rendering these diagnoses false – then he is certainly exhibiting the deceit that is characteristic of all of the personality disorders, including antisocial personality disorder.
There actually is a reason why Arthur might do this: He thinks it is very funny. Making other people uncomfortable is something that Arthur does well, and the reason for that is simple; he likes it. Arthur tricks us by playing a victim card, but he is doing this to induce discomfort and fear in others, not because he really believes that he is a victim.