The Joker — or How did Christopher Nolan Figure it All Out? — Part I


Heath Ledger as The Joker, from the movie “The Dark Knight” directed by Christopher Nolan  — posted under Fair Use

If there is any character in contemporary film that completely models a High Conflict Personality/empathy-disordered individual, it is the portrayal of the Joker by Heath Ledger in the movie “The Dark Knight”.  In fact, the portrayal was so accurate, it screwed Ledger up so much that he didn’t survive the role.    A sleeping disorder, described by Ledger as an inability to quiet his mind (just a guess — but he decalibrated his sense of time so much by playing a psychopath, it was impossible for him to regain control) led to an interaction overdose accident.

The Joker as a character is portrayed in the movie as a man with no documented past.  He comes to Gotham City solely to mess with the Protagonist — Batman.  In his own words, during an interrogation by the Batman, the Joker says:

Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?

The Joker: [giggling] I don’t, I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You… you… complete me.

Watch here:

There is the crux — the Joker, stuck down in Mirroring Behavior, can’t get The Juice out of life unless he has a mirror image that is as powerful, or more so than himself.  But that doesn’t mean that he has to confess to that early in the movie.  In the first scene with the Mob in Gotham, he says something entirely different:

Why does The Joker in one scene say “Kill the Batman” and at the same time demand money from the Mob in order to do it?  This is a perfect example of egocentric v-Meme borrowing from his audience.  While he may have no real interest in seeing the Batman dead, he knows the Mob does.  Equally as well, he knows the Mob won’t believe him if he offers to do it for free.  He has to tell them he wants money — enough to make them hurt — if he wants credibility.  In a twisted way, he is using Rational Empathy to connect to his audience using the v-Memes that they understand.

This scene also displays another point I’ve made in past posts about high-level psychopaths.  They have an incredible ability to read everyone in the room.  He looks at the TV, at Lau, the member in Hong Kong, and calls him out:  “I know the squealers when I see them.. ”

One of my favorite scenes is the scene below with Harvey Dent in the hospital.  The Joker breaks in, right before blowing up the hospital, for a conversation with Harvey, who now has half his face burned off, and is now known as Two-Face.  Harvey accuses the Joker of having a plan — and the Joker famously replies:

Harvey Dent: Your men. Your plan.

The Joker: Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just… *do* things.

He follows with the best explanation of relational disruption in a movie I’ve seen:

The Joker: I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!

[Joker hands Two-Face a gun and points it at himself]

The Joker: Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!

[still holding the gun, Two-Face pauses and takes out his coin]

Two-Face: [showing Joker the good side] You live.

The Joker: Mm-hmm.

Two-Face: [showing the scarred side] You die.

The Joker: Mmm, now we’re talking.

More than anything else, this clip shows that the Joker, even though he is anti-empathetic, is a master of empathetic reasoning, moving up and down the Spiral at will.  He understands exactly the Authoritarian/Legalistic system that he’s interacting with — and how to make everyone in it crazy.  Another amazing aspect of this scene, though, is showing the disordered and collapsed sense of time the Joker possesses.  At the end, when he presses the gun up against his own forehead, the Joker is making a profound statement about extent of time that matters.  He’s collapsed all of his desires into one, impulsive moment.

The Joker engages in v-Meme borrowing as well in the following two scenes.  In the first, the Joker is in with one of the Mob guys that wants to kill him.  Here’s the dialogue:

The Joker: You wanna know how I got these scars? My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, “Why so serious?” Comes at me with the knife. “WHY SO SERIOUS?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face.” And…

[glancing at thug]

The Joker: Why so serious?

When the audience first sees this scene, their thoughts immediately jump to empathetic connection.  We are poised to think “Wow — I totally understand the Joker.  His dad, tortured and killed his mother with a knife.  That kind of trauma would turn ANYONE into a psychopathic killer.   ”  The Joker is leading us, with our own mental models of how someone might become a killer, not only to empathetically connect with him, but to sympathize with him.  Here’s the scene:

Not only can we understand the Joker, but we relate to his experience.  We engage in rational and emotional empathy!

But then, a short while later in the movie, we have this scene:

The Joker: Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em?

[He grabs Rachel’s head and positions the knife by her mouth]

The Joker: Come here. Hey! Look at me. So I had a wife. She was beautiful, like you. Who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care about the scars. So… I stick a razor in my mouth and do this…

[the Joker mimics slicing his mouth open with his tongue]

The Joker: …to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling!

From a v-Meme perspective, the Joker is, at a minimum, forcing the audience in the cocktail party to accept him as an individual, playing off communitarian sensibilities.  In fact, it could be the Joker is presenting himself in even a more profound role — that of a self-aware criminal!

But here’s the rub — every act of transference that occurs from the audience is reversed in the movie.  And here is the key — if you’re not a psychopath, you likely can’t  think like one.  That is not the way to manage your relationships with them.  What to do?  Believe it or not, the Buddhists have the best answer.  When I originally posted this, I thought we could get through understanding the Joker in one post.  But that’s not the case.  We’ll get to those Buddhists.  But we have a little more exploration to do with the Joker.

Takeaways:  The Joker is the iconic psychopath.  With some aggregate of functional timescales, ranging from the pure impulsive, to the long-term plan, the disordered mind of the Joker keeps everyone guessing.  His most powerful weapon, though, is distortion of the mental models and assumptions that others believe to be the case.  The best weapon against the Joker?  Well-reasoned collection of data, and rational thought.  Because when you’re dealing with the Joker, you need to remember that no one’s going to be better at using your own mental models, supplemented by your own confirmation bias against you and your team.

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