His transformation from the well-meaning but unstable Arthur Fleck to The Joker is intense and captivating.
Arthur Fleck aka The Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix in 2019’s ‘Joker’ changes dramatically throughout the three Acts of the film. Arthur starts off as a mentally unstable man living in unfavorable circumstances and as he is pushed to the edge by a society that abandons and mistreats him and he evolves into the Clown Prince of Crime. His transformation from the well-meaning but unstable Arthur Fleck to The Joker is intense and captivating.
Act I begins with Arthur applying his clown makeup while the news plays on the radio. Although quite unhappy, Arthur forces a smile. He appears to be a sad man down on his luck as we see him being beaten by thugs who steal the sign he is carrying, but we quickly learn he is suffering from mental illness. As he sits in his therapist’s office, we see Arthur laughing uncontrollably but as he stops, he says “is it just me or is it getting crazier out there.” The therapist asks for his journal and as the therapist reads a disturbing excerpt that says, “I hope my death makes more sense than my life.” We learn that Arthur is on seven different medications.
On the metro ride back to his home, he tries to entertain a young child, but the child’s mother tells him to stop. Arthur starts to laugh and he shows the mother a card stating he has a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when upset/uncomfortable. After this debacle, he returns to his run-down apartment which he shares with his elderly mother. Arthur and his mother sit down to watch the Murray Franklin show, a late-night comedy talk show.
Suddenly, Arthur finds himself in the audience of the show. Murray shines the spotlight on Arthur and as they talk Arthur reveals that his dad left him as a child. Murray invites Arthur onto the stage and the hug after Murray says “I’d give all that up [his career] for a kid like you.” The heartwarming scene between Arthur and Murray is revealed to be a fantasy of Arthur’s. Arthur desperately wants a father figure and latches onto the charismatic Murray to fulfill that empty place in his heart.
Next day at work, Randall, one of Arthur’s co-workers, gives Arthur a gun for self defense in case Arthur needs to fight off thugs again. Arthur is nervous about owning a gun since having a firearm is not allowed in the workplace. Shortly after this scene, Arthur is then lectured by his boss for losing the sign to the thugs. After his boss has berated him, Arthur is seen kicking trash bags to show he has a lot of pent-up anger. Arthur then returns home where he pesters his mom about the fact that she keeps sending letters to asking financial support Thomas Wayne, the billionaire.
Soon after, Arthur is fired when he accidently drops his gun while performing in front of children at a hospital. Arthur takes the subway ride home after losing his job, still in clown outfit and makeup. Three aggressive young men dressed in suits enter the subway and harass a woman. Arthur becomes uncomfortable and he starts to laugh due to his condition. The young men start to harass him and eventually beat him up. Arthur then retaliates by shooting and killing all three men. This encounter is the catalyst that transforms Arthur from a sad man to the violent Joker.
Act II is a roller coaster ride for Arthur. He returns to his apartment and enters his neighbor Sophie’s apartment and kisses her setting off their romance. The next day, Arthur goes back to his previous job to pick up his stuff and tells his ex-coworkers that Randall gave him the gun. Arthur then unleashes more of his pent-up aggression when punching the clock out box and crosses out the “forget” in “don’t forget to smile” on a sign.
Arthur goes home and watches TV with his mom. Thomas Wayne is on TV lamenting the loss of the three young men on the subway, who were Wall Street Stockbrokers. Their killing is interpreted as a kill the rich propaganda even though Arthur did not mean for the killing to have any sort of message. He seems to show a lack of remorse for killing the three men and laughs at Thomas Wayne for calling unfortunate people clowns and.
Arthur is then cut off from therapy since Social Services has been defunded. During his final session he says “All I have is negative thoughts” which is in stark contrast with his clown persona. Arthur then does a stand-up routine and starts off uncontrollably laughing clearly making the audience uncomfortable. He sees Sophie in the audience and starts to do his stand up successfully. He aces his performance getting many laughs and smiles from the audience. He even grabs dinner with Sophie after the performance.
Arthur returns home and then finds a note that his mom wrote to Thomas Wayne revealing that Arthur is the illegitimate son of the Gotham Billionaire. With this revelation, Arthur confronts his mom and a huge argument ensues almost tearing the close mother-son relationship apart. Arthur visits Wayne Manor in hopes of talking to his long-lost father. It does not turn out well when Alfred, loyal butler of the Wayne family, confronts him after Arthur tried to entertain Bruce Wayne at the gate. Arthur tells Alfred that he is the son of Penny Fleck and Thomas Wayne. Alfred tells Arthur that his mom was “…delusional. She was a sick woman…” Arthur then tries to strangle Alfred but runs away out of fear of consequences.
With the new knowledge of his mom’s mental illness, it causes more division between him and his mom. Arthur is comforted by Sophie who gives a visit when his mom is hospitalized. Arthur sees on the hospital TV that Murray Franklin showed his standup routine and made fun of it. Arthur was crushed seeing his idol make fun of him on live TV. Arthur goes to a movie theatre to find Thomas Wayne. He walks through a protest but seems unaware of the cause of it and Arthur pumps his fist in the air to celebrate the high energy of the crowd.
When he finally meets Thomas Wayne, Thomas tells Arthur that he was adopted, and his mom was insane. Arthur wishes people were not so rude and that Thomas Wayne could have been there as a father. Thomas punches Arthur for harassing him and his family. Arthur returns home and gets a call that Murray Franklin wants him on the show. Arthur says yes since even though his icon crushed his routine, he would be able to live out a lifelong dream of being on the show.
Arthur goes to a psych ward to find his mom’s papers. He finds out his mom was deemed crazy, he was adopted, that she and his ex-adopted father were abusive to him and Arthur is not the son of Thomas Wayne. This revelation destroys him since he realizes he could not trust anyone anymore, not even his own mother. He returns home to his apartment and enters Sophie’s apartment room. It is then revealed his romance was all made up in his head and her fate is made unclear. His full transformation into The Joker soon happens when he kills his mom for lying to him.
Act III begins as his ex-coworkers, Randall and Gary, show up to Arthur’s apartment to send their condolences for the death of Arthur’s mom. As this is happening, Arthur is preparing to go onto the Murray Franklin Show, makeup, and all. Arthur then snaps quickly and kills Randall with a pair of scissors. The Joker spares Gary since Gary was the only one nice to him at work. The Joker just wants people to be nice in a crazy world. The Joker heads off to the Murray Franklin show, even getting into a scuffle with the cops as he goes. He arrives to the show and Murray gives him a warm welcome as Joker waits to be called to the stage. Arthur asks Murray to call Arthur “Joker” when Arthur is brought on stage since Murray called him a “Joker” when showing his stand-up routine.
Joker prepares the gun so he can kill himself in front of the audience to make the point that the world does not care for people like him. Joker gives some of his material, it receives no laughs from the audience and Murray quickly realizes that The Joker is unstable. Murray’s assumptions prove true when Joker admits to killing the three men. Joker says the only reason people mourned the three men’s death because they were stockbrokers, but if they had been a poor man like him, they would be forgotten and left in the gutter.
Joker then gets upset when Murray berates him and realizes Murray only brought Joker on to make fun of him. Joker, using the guise of another joker says “what do you get when a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash… I’ll tell you what you get, you get what you fucking deserve.” Joker then uses the gun he intended using on himself on Murray, shooting the TV host two times.
Joker gets arrested and sees rioters with clown faces demanding death to the rich as he is being transported away. Rioters, who idolize Joker crash into the police car and free him. Joker loves the attention. Next scene the Joker is in a psych ward laughing. The psychologist asks him what’s funny and he says “you wouldn’t get it.” Arthur Fleck is no more and The Joker is all that remains.
Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the Joker throughout the three acts of the film show how someone who is mentally unstable, who receives no love and care, and gets lied to and cheated constantly, can snap and become a monster. The Joker is a monster birthed by a cruel and uncaring society.
By Drew Cheskin