Please note this post contains major *SPOILERS* from the 2019 film Joker.
To avoid spoilers, watch the trailer:
If you haven’t seen Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, then what are you doing with your life? Joker, portrayed on screen by Grammy award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, is a multi-layered character that captures the true nature of insanity.
As a stand-alone film, Joker is a character study that leaves audiences with no choice but to sympathize with the titular character. He has been abandoned and excommunicated from society due to increasing complications with mental illness, and is, honestly, lost.
As I was sitting in the theater, I could not help but feel sorry for Arthur Fleck, the man behind the infamous killer clown. He’s working a dead-end job as a clown for an entertainment company called “HA HAs”. From the very opening scene, we see Arthur fighting back tears as he forces himself to smile while putting on his clown makeup. Afterward, he is sign flipping for a closing business before being jumped by a gang of Gotham teens.
The film opens with immense violence–that is honestly difficult to watch. As I was watching this scene, I couldn’t help but look away. I mean, poor Arthur, just trying to do his job before being abused.
At the beginning of the film, I believed Arthur was a troubled guy who is just trying his best, however, by the end I was left wondering if it all really happened.
There are some key clues that I’ve put together that reveal the events of Joker are all in Arthur’s mind. Here are 9 reasons why the origin story portrayed in Joker is a facade:
1) Joker's Origins in Other Adaptations
Joker is notorious for telling falsehoods about his origin story. He tells different stories of how he became Joker to different people in order to better manipulate them.
In Batman: The Killing Joke, released in 1988, the Joker leaves his job at Ace Chemical Plant to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. Shortly thereafter, he realizes his comedy career isn’t taking flight. In order to support his pregnant wife and unborn child, the Joker enlists on a heist job with a few local criminals.
Later in the story, he discovers his wife had died in an electrical fire. Pressured by the criminals, he still participates in the heist. Unfortunately for Joker, the police along with Batman bust the criminals. In a fit of panic, Joker falls into a batch of acid and becomes the Clown Prince of Crime we know him to be.
But did this really happen?
Later in the comic, the Joker casts doubt on this origin story, stating he remembers it differently every time he tells it.
This is only one of several origin stories the Joker has told throughout his comic book history. Even in 2008’s The Dark Knight, the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger, tells inconsistent stories of how he got his scars.
The lure of the Joker lies in his mystery. How can he be a daunting, sporadic character if we knew everything about him? As revealed in the comics, maybe he himself can’t recall his true origin.
Now that we have looked over the Joker’s history, let’s get into 2019’s Joker.
2) Arthur's Stay in Arkham is Fishy
The first time we see Arthur Fleck speaking to his therapist, she recalls a time when he was held in Arkham’s psychiatric ward. Although a quick flashback, it reveals a lot to the audience.
For me, this scene sets the stage for a possible fabrication of the proceeding events. The hospital is glowing white–almost appearing ethereal. Arthur is banging his head on the door of the room he is in. The imagery alone makes me think “is what’s about to happen real, or is Arthur making it up in his mind”.
3) Arthur's Vivid Hallucinations
Another strong clue is the scene where Arthur and his mother, Penny, are watching the Murray Franklin Show. He immediately delves into an alternative world where he is in the live audience of the Murray Franklin Show. Subsequently, Murray, his idol, calls him to the stage and praises him. Shortly thereafter, he snaps back into reality.
This scene establishes Arthur as an unreliable narrator. Since the film is shown from his perspective, we are left wondering if we can trust his version of events.
We discover Arthur is a character who suffers from delusions even before his medication is cut off later in the film. This discovery ties back into the Arkham Asylum scene where Arthur is banging his head on the door. It reinforces the madness that is already thriving within Arthur before fulling engulfing himself in the Joker image. Therefore, casting doubt on his origins.
4) Arthur's Therapist Never Acknowledges Him
In the second scene with his therapist, Arthur divulges his discontent for her. He expresses that she doesn’t listen, and her sessions are repetitive, and, therefore, unhelpful.
As I was watching this scene, I felt immense sadness for Arthur. He’s struggling with mental illness and isn’t getting the help he needs. Although the first time I watched the scene I couldn’t help but pity Arthur, the second time around I felt something was off.
The therapist doesn’t acknowledge anything Arthur says to her. Her body language also shows no acknowledgment of Arthur’s rant. The whole mood of the scene tells me that Arthur, like all of us do, is fantasizing about this display of dissatisfaction. I think he delves into a dream-like state every time he speaks to his therapist.
5) Arthur's Constant Delusions of Sophie Dumond
Throughout the film, we follow Arthur as he builds a romantic relationship with single mom, Sophie Dumond. They go on a date at a local diner and walk the streets of Gotham arm-in-arm. She is even there for him when his mother falls ill. To Arthur, she’s a supportive girlfriend who only wants to see him succeed. However, not all is as it seems.
Their relationship begins when Sophie seemingly knocks on Arthur’s door to confront him about stalking her. Instead of being creeped out, she appears more impressed. This is a red flag! What actual single mother living in a bad part of the big city would approach her stalker without any precautions? NONE!
It is later revealed that the whole interaction was a delusion Arthur had made up in his mind. Yes, he did stalk her. However, she did not approach him about it, nor did she enter a relationship with him. The whole fabrication of their relationship is easy to spot, especially considering Sophie’s daughter is never seen with her when she’s “with” Arthur.
The fake Sophie relationship reinforces the fact that Arthur is not a trustworthy storyteller.
6) Thomas Wayne is Confronted by Arthur/Joker
Joker confronting Thomas Wayne is a huge red flag. Although this scene seems real, it never really sat right with me.
Arthur walks up from the street into a crowd protesting the socioeconomic structure in front of a theatre hall. A fight breaks out among the protesters and police officers; giving Arthur just enough time to slip past the barrier and sneak into the side door of the theatre. He also has enough time to find a random theatre attendant uniform without being caught. He even has the chance to catch a few snippets of the Charlie Chaplin film being played.
Shortly after, he spots Thomas Wayne leaving the theatre and follows him to the bathroom. There, Arthur confronts his alleged father. This confrontation doesn’t go so well and ends with Arthur getting punched in the face hard by Wayne. The next scene transitions from Arthur leaning over the bathroom counter with a bloody nose to him leaning over his kitchen counter. Later in the film, there is no indication of this assault. No bruising. Nothing.
The setup is too perfect. He sneaks into a theatre that is heavily guarded without any complications. This seems very unlikely, especially considering the number of officers hanging around. If it’s that chaotic outside, why wouldn’t anyone be guarding the doors inside?
Furthermore, considering Arthur’s personality he doesn’t seem likely to approach Thomas Wayne. Arthur is reclusive and doesn’t interact very much with the people surrounding him. Arguably, his only friend is his mother. He doesn’t build relationships with people around him mostly because they think he’s odd. I don’t see him confronting Wayne even if he had the opportunity. And that scene transition makes it seem to me like he’s in a dream-like state once again.
7) Brief Scenes of Arthur's Hysterical Laughter
Throughout the film, there are scenes of Arthur laughing hysterically seemingly at the wrong times. For instance, when he is hallucinating about being on the Murray Franklin show he laughs shortly after everyone else laughs. It’s as if he’s on a laugh track that’s running 5 seconds too late. No one around him reacts to this delay or the obnoxious laughter he belts out.
This happens periodically throughout the movie. When he is in the audience at the comedy club Pogo’s, he begins laughing off-track once again. His laugh is very attention-grabbing, loud, and off-beat, yet no one surrounding him reacts.
I think this shows that he’s not really at the comedy club or the Murray Franklin Show but in his own mind. It’s as if he’s watching a VHS tape with no sound and is just guessing when people are laughing.
8) Arkham Asylum Appearance When Visiting vs. When Arthur/Joker is Institutionalized
There are certain scenes where we can see the inside of Arkham Hospital. It is dirty and dingy looking. The hospital walls and floors are brown and uninviting. The lighting has a yellowish overbearing tint, instead of a bright white that most hospitals have. This is not a place you’d like to visit a waning family member in. It’s depressing, dark, and hopeless.
However, the hospital doesn’t always look this way. In scenes where Arthur is a patient, the hospital is white, pristine, and ethereal. It has this tremendous glow that makes it seem like a dream.
There is a stark difference between the appearance of Arkham when Arthur is a patient and when he is a visitor. Why is that?
I think Arthur is in the hospital as a patient throughout the entirety of the film. This means that nothing we see is real but all in Arthur’s mind. When we see the dirty dingy hospital that means Arthur is hallucinating. However, when we see the clean hospital is when he is not hallucinating.
I think it suits the character that the reality of his environment would appear dreamlike, while the fantasy is closer to reality.
We see this white fluorescent hospital at the end of the film too when Arthur is speaking to a therapist at Arkham. She appears eerily similar to the therapist we saw earlier in the film by the way.
The different hospital aesthetics hint that the real-world we’re seeing isn’t the real world.
9) Joker in Arkham Asylum at the End of the Film
The end scene introduces us to a psychiatrist that looks like the therapist we had scene towards the beginning of the film. Was the therapist at the start of the film a delusion that mimicked his actual therapist at Arkham? I don’t think we’ll ever get an answer. However, it’s something to think about.
What are your thoughts on what’s real in Joker? What other things did you raise your eyebrow at in the film? Leave me a comment!