A cabby, an entertainer and an entrepreneur walk into a bar. The entrepreneur chats up a local businessman by the bar. The cabby finds a quiet spot at the back, blends into the shadows; the entertainer takes the stage, in the spotlight. Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with anything? These three men, all ordinary looking, all seemingly different from each other, nothing apparently tying them together, share a trait that makes them stand out from your typical crowd. One could call them psychopaths.
The word “psychopathy” was derived from the German term “psychopastiche”, which, in the most literal of senses, means “suffering soul”. The suffering can be individual, collective, or simply extrapersonal. It can be genuine, in quasi martyrish fashion; or it can be it can stem from purely selfish considerations. Most of us have heard of the likes of real-life psychopaths such as Ted Bundy or Charles Manson. But these monsters pale in comparison to the individuals portrayed on the big screen, the glitzy psychopaths of Hollywood, stars of the show, varnished with all the spectacularism and shock factor of Tinsel Town.
People have long been fascinated with the suffering of others. Is it the legendary human curiosity, is it something else. The population will gladly sit in a crowded movie theater to witness Norman Bates stab a woman in the shower while sauntering in his mother’s clothes, or watch Patrick Bateman impassively drop a chainsaw on a fleeing woman, like excited villagers at a public execution in the Middle Ages. Whatever it is, the big producers have understood it.
“Taxi Driver”, “Nightcrawler” and “Joker” are three fundamentally different movies, with drastically different plots, dissimilar settings, and radically divergent protagonists. So now you’re probably wondering why one would want to draw parallels among them.
Joker, still fresh in our memories, was both a commercial and critical success, making more than 1 billion USD in the box office and earning Joaquin Phoenix that well-deserved Oscar. But more intriguing than the movie itself is protagonist Arthur Fleck, the eponymous Joker, resident suffering soul and social reject. Phoenix’s Joker departs greatly from previous versions of the iconic villain, from the comic book maniac to, say, Heath Ledger’s crime lord. Unlike all the past appearances, here is depicted Arthur, the man.
The opening scene of Joker, an undoubtedly powerful one, shows how broken Arthur is. Applying his clown makeup – a role that is meant to bring happiness – Arthur forces himself to smile, as tears stream down his face. He’s just a working-class man, trying to keep his head above the water, who proceeds to get beating up by kids and get fired because of them. The first 5 min of the movie are enough to appeal to the viewers’ sympathy. “But he’s a dangerous psychopath!” you think. Well, it’s much more complex than that. Joker is indubitably one of the most violent, dangerous maniacs of fiction. Arthur is a victim of capitalism, a reject of society. Joker is a monster; Arthur is human. While Arthur is a man, Joker is a product of society. Throughout the movie, we gradually witness the making of a psychopath. Arthur was a man with a mental illness, initially defenseless – as we see when he gets beaten up – who needed help. He was vulnerable. Prone to slip to the darker side of his soul. « You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week,” he tells the city-commissioned therapist. He’s exposing the flaws of a society that doesn’t actually care about the people. And when he eventually snaps, it is, according to him, to right the wrongs of society. The people he killed throughout the movie were bullies – which in no way makes it acceptable – but does show us he considers himself to be sort of a vigilante. Almost an anti-hero but not quite.
Reminds you of someone? A certain gun-toting cabby from the 70s? Travis Bickle is pretty different from Arthur Fleck. Travis hasn’t been bullied nor blatantly abandoned by society like Arthur and, in his mind, he is way more than the casual anti-hero; he’s the cape-donning mighty hero. They also differ in slight nuances; both have an issue with the corrupt society they live in, but while Arthur’s “purge” is on a macrosocietal scale, Travis’ objective is on a microsocietal level, centered around a specific group of individuals. But they do share a lot of common traits. He is also mentally disturbed and a threat, albeit not in the same way as Arthur. He feels like he’s a soldier on a mission, this being reinforced by his status as a Vietnam war veteran. He has defended his country and now he’s come back to defend its people.
Travis’ main goal in the movie is ultimately to free Iris, a child prostitute, from the grips of ruthless pimps. Despite his morally and lawfully wrong methods, his intentions themselves are noble. He wants to save a kid. So we do sympathize with him to some extent.
One might feel a pinch of sympathy for Arthur and Travis. Two suffering souls, who keep sinking deeper and deeper into insanity and dark penchants, who need saving. Louis Bloom is downright despicable. Everything he does is in his own interest. He goes to extreme lengths to get what he wants and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. A true sociopath. Sure, just like his two peers, he’s alone. But he is not lonely as much as he’s a loner. Get this straight: he’s alone by choice. He explicitly states that he doesn’t like people. Louis doesn’t care about social justice or anything that doesn’t pertain to his own comfort. He is, from the beginning, utterly selfish and cruel. There is no “gradual change” or “slipping away” to notice throughout the movie. It’s simply Louis’ journey as a wicked man from a nobody to somebody. If that’s not enough to convince you, he beats up a security guy and steals his watch in addition to construction materials in the opening scene. And proceeds to blackmail his way into a TV station.
Louis is a conceited and manipulative opportunist. Oh, and almost never dropping that devilish fake smile, which, unlike Arthur, isn’t meant to hide his pain. Louis has no pain; does he even have any sort of emotion at all, you wonder. Well sociopaths usually don’t.
Now I’ve mentioned that word a few times already. “Sociopath”. Weren’t we talking about psychopaths? People tend to use the words interchangeably. But they’re not quite the same. While Arthur and Travis are obvious psychopaths, Louis lies somewhere in between, though swaying dangerously close to sociopathy. If you were to watch the three characters purely as a viewer, with no intentions of analytical involvement, overlooking the slight differences that tell them apart, you’d miss it. I mean, all of them hurt people, right? But dig a little deeper into that and you’ll start seeing the divergent patterns. How does Arthur feel when he first kills his attackers on the train? Scared, lost, then finally, liberated, as he gracefully waltzes in front of the bathroom mirror. What about after Travis gets rid of the pimps? He is content, satisfied. He takes pride in his actions and feels heroic. Emotions. But Louis? SPOILER ALERT: After he gets his assistant Rick shot, he just…stares at him, cold, unflinching, as the latter is uttering his last words, and stoically says: “I can’t jeopardize my company’s success to retain an untrustworthy employee.” Arthur killed to, in his opinion, reestablish order. Travis killed to save Iris. Louis sacrificed a human life so that it wouldn’t “jeopardize” HIS business.
Psychopaths have been a Hollywood favorite since forever. It’s quite obvious: Norman Bates in the 60s, Alex from A Clockwork Orange in the 70s, Hannibal Lecter in the 90s, Patrick Bateman in the 00s. Do I really need to continue? While they sure prove entertaining for viewers, they are also fascinating to analyze and decrypt. What could be a passive moment of viewership turns into an exciting psychological exercise that stimulates the brain. When well constructed, you will never get bored with an onscreen psychopath, especially when they are as diverse and three-dimensional as the characters discussed, visibly similar in the wide angle but distinguishable in the finer details. As entertaining as fictional psychopaths are, cheers to never meeting one in real life!