Joker: A Powerful Psychological Drama

The sad story of self-actualization gone wrong.

Posted Nov 01, 2019

I am a psychiatrist — specifically an expert in trauma in adults and children. I'm also a movie lover.

When friends of mine tried to convince me to watch Joker with them, I was hesitant. I was not interested in an action movie solely focused on the bad guy, especially given that I liked Batman.

However, a few minutes into the movie I realized what I had got myself into. Joker is not an action movie, it is a sad psychological drama, depicting the suffering of a man who was wronged, and got it wrong.

Beginning: A Sad Child and a Man Lost in Chaos

Arthur is deeply sad and confused. His job contradicts his feelings, which he hides behind the makeup. He was beaten up by others, physically and emotionally, all his life. Every day he came home to take care of a mother who was not able to care for him when he was a child. A mother who had raised him in a distorted reality: Things are good although they are terrible. Arthur is deeply confused about his place in the world, what is real, and what is fantasy.

When alone, Arthur is most of the time naked, a clear contrast to his daily life hiding behind a mask. He does not have a sense of identity; instead, he is empty. He colors his emptiness with makeup, and his deep agony with a fake smile drawn on his face. Then, are the terribly untimely, annoying, and agonizing laughter attacks. 

Agony, Fake Smiles, and Crazy Laughter

Joaquin Phoenix does a great job of portraying Aruthr’s deep agony and inviting the viewer inside the chaos of his shattering mind. That makes this movie hard and painful to watch. Every time Arthur tries to step outside of his inner painful world and connect with others, even as a clown, or a stand-up comedian, his unpredictable laughter attacks claw him back into the pain within.

The laughter is perceived as a disease, maybe a tic, or a neurological condition. A psychoanalyst, though, could have a different interpretation: a defense mechanism. We later learn that Arthur was severely abused and neglected during childhood, leading him to hardwired suffering and developing a sense of a ruthless and sad universe. 

In the state hospital, flashbacks to Arthur’s mother’s interview with a psychiatrist reveal that his delusional mother had totally ignored Arthur’s pain during his childhood, and always thought he was a happy child. Parents not only form a large part of our perception of the universe, but also that of ourselves.

Little Arthur was terribly confused: I am very sad, suffering physical and mental pain, but Mom says I am happy, and probably expects me to be happy. This leads to a duality of Arthur’s character: The inside and outside worlds do not, and will not, match.

This all may explain his choice of a job where he looks happy to others and tries to make them happy while suffering deep inside. And the crazy laughter: an overflow of the reactive defense, a scream of happiness that satisfies Mom, and simultaneously repels her and others. It protects Arthur from the outside world, as it pulls him back into his inner abyss, curling into himself. The laughter blocks every attempt of connecting with the outside world, which is perceived by his inner child as deceitful and brutal, even if looking nice on the surface. The laughter protects him from the world he perceives.

What Is Real and What Is Not?

Between his and his mother’s delusions, it is impossible for Arthur to determine reality from fantasy. Per the mother, he is the son of a famous man and the result of a glorified secret romance. It is at the state hospital that the beautiful fantasy world, his reality, is shattered.

He learns that his mother is psychotic, he was adopted, and was seriously abused and neglected by mother’s boyfriend. This confusion about what he can or cannot rely on, and what is going to hurt him, creates tremendous vulnerability, anger, and sadness. Next is killing, in order to become.

The Becoming 

The revelation at the hospital is a moment of awakening, not only to the facts but also of the childhood programming. He becomes a man, in a very sad way.

Boys learn how to be a man from male figures, mostly the father. Here, the man—mom’s boyfriend—was brutal and abusive, and that is what Arthur becomes: He identifies with the aggressor. The other option, Thomas Wayne, is not an option anymore, as he now knows Wayne is not his father.

He becomes the violent ruthless man, the father, while still fulfilling mother’s wish: a smiling clown. He kills his mother, his anchor in the unreal, the beautiful fantasy world, the big lie. Then he launches into killing his anchors of hope in the real world: the lady next door he likes, his fantasies for a nurturing relationship he never had, potentially a family; his friend and colleague, a symbol of a career; and Murray Franklin, another praised father figure, the connection between Arthur and his mother, between Arthur and his career ambition, and a presentation of goodness. Joker kills what he cannot have, and cannot be, and disconnects. 

Arthur becomes not who he was born to be, but who he was raised to be — a victim of parents’ wishes and actions who is dead and hurting inside, with a big fake smile for the outside world and the mother. It is natural for him to hurt and kill, because to him, the world is an evil lie, and he shares himself with this world: dead inside, and tormented. 

Joker is a hard movie to watch.