WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
Joker introduces potentially one of the most mentally disturbed versions of the iconic villain. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, Arthur Fleck struggles with society and his own mental health as he lashes out at those around him.
But one aspect of his mental state throws the rest of the film into question. Considering how powerful Arthur's delusions are, how much of Joker is in his mind?
The Problem With Sophie
One of the only positive aspects of Arthur's life, at least for a while, his relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz). One of his neighbors, Sophie accompanies him around Gotham, laughing at his jokes and supporting him when things get tough. Arthur is more relaxed around her.
That's what makes the revelation that none of it was real all the more devastating. After learning the truth about his origin, and killing his own mother, Arthur goes to Sophie's apartment. But she's terrified, because she barely knows the man who sneaked into her home, and begs him to leave. Arthur then comes to the slow realization that Sophie never accompanied him on any dates; he only imagined she was there This is the moment that seems to break him, and he retreats to his room, where he gives in to the darker impulses that will define him as the Joker.
It's All In Your Head
There are other matters that make the matter of Arthur's his delusions more complicated. He spends most of the film trying to adjust after he's informed his state-provided medication has been cut. That could explain part of his growing fury. But even before he was off the medication, Arthur would have extended fantasies in which he's popular, particularly when he appears on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) show. The difference is that he seems to at least be aware those are merely fantasies, unlike the revelation with Sophie. It takes the shock of seeing a terrified and confused Sophie in the real world for Arthur to realize what's happening to him.
With his delusions becoming more pronounced, a genuine question can be asked about how much of his subsequent actions are informed by them. Events in Joker quickly escalate from civil unrest to outright violence. Protestors adopt the appearance of the Joker for their demonstrations outside places occupied by the wealthy. More and more people appearing to be clowns fill the streets. Although the three murders Arthur committed seem to have actually happened, considering how the rest of Gotham reacts. He could be imagining just how much the rest of the city agrees with him.
As the film progresses, it becomes more difficult to pin down what events are really happening, especially as they become more outlandish. Arthur's actions lead to anarchy gripping Gotham, seemingly inspiring people to terrible acts. He is able to sneak through a massive protest, extensive police presence and building security at a theater so he can have the chance to confront Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). When Murray Franklin brings this up during his television appearance, Arthur seems to admit his mental illness has shaped and warped his perspective, just before he kills the talk-show host. But it's the chaos that follows that is the most ambiguous. While being transported by the police, Arthur watches riots overtake Gotham. The violence is so explosive that the officers don't realize an ambulance is heading straight toward them.
What follows is a crowd in clown makeup that pulls (a somehow uninjured) Arthur from the wreckage. Hoisted up, the unconscious Arthur is laid atop a police car with reverence, almost as if he were a religious figure. By the time he comes to, there's an entire mob of people in clown masks, cheering for him and his actions. It's the ultimate version of his dream, a world that must pay attention to him, and that loves him for what he is. It's a surreal moment, a terrifying display of Gotham's worst impulses coming to the surface. But is that just what a troubled man imagines how the world would react to his actions?
It is all so sudden and shocking that there's a good chance it really isn't happening. Fleck surviving with almost no serious injuries, only to be surrounded by his new fans seems too good to be true for him. Perhaps it is. Is there a chance Fleck imagined this outpouring of support, just as he did with Sophie earlier in the film? The final moments of the movie have Fleck locked in Arkham, telling a social worker about how he knows a joke that she wouldn't "get." How much of the film was all just that joke in his head? Was the entire point of the film to showcase the inner workings of a troubled man, and question his perception of the world around him? If so, it suggests the film's portrayal of a sympathetic Arthur Fleck is inherently twisted by his own preconceived notions of himself and the world, and how much it actually agrees with him.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham. The film is in theaters now.