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Character Development 3: The Joker as a Third Way Villain

Actor Anthony Perkins (1932-1992) as Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho(1960). Image Source: IMDB.
Modern stories conflate villainy with mental illness because psychiatrists and psychologists have replaced the clergy as society's listening post. Psychological development has supplanted religious faith. This modern rationalization of mental experiences outside the ordinary has provided solutions where organized religions have fallen short.

Old Diagnoses, New Diagnoses

But for each modern answer, an older insight was lost and returned back to the realm of mystery. There is a price for each gain made, paid through some renewed blindness. For the extreme mental illness of psychopathy, a modern mental health professional would use the Hare Psychopathy Checklist as follows:
Do you sense you are someone extremely important?Would you say you need constant stimulation?Do you find pleasure in manipulating people?Would you lie in order to get your own way?Do you never say sorry?Are you know…

Death and the Mistaken Perspective


Richard Gere in a still from Primal Fear (1996). Image Source: IMDB.

I first saw the American film, Primal Fear, dubbed in German while working in Munich in the summer of 1996. I was left with a curious impression of the movie. I had an initial intuitive understanding based on the action and a non-native grasp of the language. Later, once I saw the movie again in my native English, I had a much more rational, analytical and considered sense of the nuances of plot and character.

If you have ever lived in a foreign country, immersed in an environment where you cannot fully speak the language or do not know the culture, you know what it means to float through a sea of partial understanding. It is a state of perpetual uncertainty until you finally catch on. The experience can lead one to question how one perceives things. The native speakers are so self-assured. On the other hand, the outsider, who is less confident, gains the ability to observe the natives' unrecognized uncertainties in their environment. The non-native operates in a grey area which allows him or her to see where the natives' confidence limits them; where they take things for granted; where the assumptions and blind spots of their native culture lead them to behave in ways that are wrong, counter-intuitive or destructive.

The same can be said for any in-group with an outsider witness. It need not be a national group; it can be an economic class, a professional culture, or a generational identity.

The twist ending (below) of Primal Fear follows the conventions of film noir, where the main character's fate is already decided, based on his or her misunderstanding of a plot that concerns death. The character makes the wrong choices and cannot help it because of the way he or she sees things. Although the protagonist chooses to see events in a flawed way, this increases the audience's compassion. They forgive the main character's transgressions and confusion because the protagonist's mistakes remind them of their own failures and mortality.

Noir narratives tell us that death involves a fatal inability to see reality clearly, whether one is an outsider or an insider. It doesn't matter if you are a non-native or a native in a culture; whether you are someone who lacks confidence in your knowledge, or if you are someone who is certain of your expertise.

The Outside Perspective


Body Heat: bathtub scenes in films make occult references to inverted baptisms and to water, the seat of the emotions. Image Source: Youtube.

To compare Primal Fear to another noir, Body Heat (1981), the main characters in both films are lawyers and the plots hinge on the inner workings of the legal profession. In Body Heat, the lawyer is a hapless outsider, a person whose grasp of what is happening around him is marred by lust and past mistakes. His legal practice is failing. He is attracted to the dark side, to sleaze, to breaking the rules he is meant to uphold.

Body Heat*Ice Scene*Kathleen Turner*William Hurt (16 December 2017). Video Source: Youtube.

Mickey Rourke in "Body Heat" (1981) (7 February 2007). Video Source: Youtube.

Body Heat -- Problem with the Will (7 November 2011). Video Source: Youtube.

SpoilersBody Heat End (13 April 2011). Video Source: Youtube.

The Inside Perspective

In Primal Fear, the lawyer is a sleek, confident native speaker of the law, a superstar who is raking in the bucks and is thrilled by the power the law gives him over the line between good and evil. When a journalist interviews him, he boasts: "Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people's lives?"

Primal Fear (7/9) Movie CLIP - How Can You Do What You Do? (1996) HD (6 October 2011). Video Source: Youtube.

But the lawyer in this film, this time through overconfidence, cannot understand what is happening around him. In the end, he fails because of his immersion inside his limited, albeit powerful, sphere of influence. He encounters, but never fully confronts, the chaos and mysteries outside his professional bubble. One of the weaknesses of Primal Fear is that it hints that there is an 'outside': a larger level of frightening, dangerous action beyond the lawyers' area of concern. But the story does not fully explore the corruption in the city, which is the real source of the crimes in the story. The twist conclusion confines itself to the machinations of the murderer and the mistakes of his counsellor.

Primal Fear (1/9) Movie CLIP - A Woman With a Brain (1996) HD (6 October 2011). Video Source: Youtube.

Primal Fear (4/9) Movie CLIP - Powerful People (1996) HD (6 October 2011). Video Source: Youtube.

Primal Fear - Roy (1 April 2011). Video Source: Youtube.

Spoilers: Primal Fear (1996) - Ending scene (21 February 2017). Video Source: Youtube.

Thus, noir deals with how we see things. And whether we are wrong or right in our subjective truths, those uncertainties and certainties lead us to the same dark place. Noir is dominated by the moon - a symbol of obscurity, passion, secrets, lies and mysteries revealed through the soul's intuitions and intentions. The protagonist of Primal Fear is named Martin Vail, a play on 'veil,' implying that the character's sight is obscured despite (and because of) his worldly success. It also suggests that this protagonist is still an innocent, a man who assumes things with the confidence of a child.

From the Primal Fear soundtrack: Canção do Mar (25 May 2012). Video Source: Youtube.

Canção do Mar by Dulce Pontes (Album, Portugal: Canção do Mar / Lágrimas (1993))

Fui bailar no meu batel
Além no mar cruel
E o mar bramindo
Diz que eu fui roubar
A luz sem par
Do teu olhar tão lindo!

Vem saber se o mar terá razão...
Vem cá, ver bailar meu coração!

Se eu bailar no meu batel
Não vou ao mar cruel
E nem lhe digo aonde eu
Fui cantar, sorrir, bailar,
Viver, sonhar...
Contigo!


Song of the Sea

I was dancing on my little boat
There on the cruel sea
And the sea was crying out to me
Telling me that I stole
The incomparable light
Of your beautiful eyes


Come and prove that the sea is right
Come here and see my heart dancing!


If I'll go dancing on my little boat
I won't go to the cruel sea
And I won't tell you where I was singing
Smiling, dancing,

Living and dreaming
Of you.


- All copyrights belong to rights holders; lyrics, stills and clips are reproduced non-commercially here under Fair Use.

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