Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thank God He's a Fictional Character

Ideology handcuffs psychology, criminal justice

What is almost certainly the most anticipated movie of the past three years opened in theatres world wide yesterday, and has left audiences absolutely stunned.

Audiences turned out in record numbers yesterday to see the superhero opus.

What has people talking most is the beyond spectacular performance turned in by Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker. Ledger's take on the villain is unsettling on a deep psychological level, as he takes the character deeper than he's ever been taken before, on the silver screen or off.

Ledger's Joker is a cold, calculating, sadistic, self-styled anarchist determined to show all the "planners" of Gotham -- from District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to the city's "silent protector" himself, Batman (Christian Bale) -- how futile their efforts really are.

Which is, in a sense, ironic. The film opens with a bank heist so meticulously planned that the Joker is ultimately able to blend in with rush hour traffic in a manner that renders him absolutely untracable (specific details withheld for obvious reasons).

The Joker that emerges is the most realistic version of the character offered: an individual carrying psychological trauma embedded so deeply in his personality that he is willing to do absolutely anything, and feels absolutely no remorse.

Human language has a word for such individuals: we call them psychopaths. It should then be interesting to note that our criminal justice system has no such word.

In 1980, University of British Columbia psychologist Bob Hare developed a diagnostic tool known as the Psychopathy Checklist. Five years later it would be revised into the PCL-R.

Upon being presented with the PCL-R, one of the first things Corrections Canada did was shelve it. It was deemed politically incorrect to suggest that any criminal should be considered beyond rehabilitation. It offended the sensibilities of the authorities of the day to suggest that an individual could be considered irredeemable, and it still does.

In other words, if an individual like Heath Ledger's Joker -- a psychopathic criminal with an extreme gift for planning and a predisposition toward terrorist tactics -- ever emerged in Canadian society, our law enforcement and correctional systems would be utterly handcuffed.

On this note, two caveats must be affixed: first off, the character portrayed by Ledger must be treated as hyperbolic beyond all credulity. Secondly, Hare notes that the vast majority of psychopaths are what he terms "subclinical" psychopaths -- an individual who leaves behind them a trail of abuse and personal destruction, but who acts almost entirely within the law -- even if only barely.

As such, the PCL-R would not only provide a useful tool for law enforcement and corrections, but also for family therapists and child protective services -- if only the political will existed to actually make use of it.

There is, of course, a dark flip side to the PCL-R. In many cases -- particularly in the United States -- the PCL-R has been combined with a myriad of political values in order to render an assessment of psychopathy where one would otherwise be unsuitable.

This is a reality that Hare has long realized, and has spurred him to spend his retirement years travelling to various conferences -- on topics ranging from psychology to law enforcement -- to clarif the purposes of the PCL-R. "I'm protecting it from erosion, from distortion. It could easily be compromised," Hare says.

Which is important to remember. Any diagnostic tool can be abused, and often will be. While that necessitates a certain level of vigilance in the use of it, however, it's insufficient reason to discard it altogether.

Ledger's Joker will prove to be as iconic a performance as Brandon Lee's in The Crow -- not least of which because of his untimely demise.

The performance will haunt filmgoers and challenge other actors for years to come.

Hopefully, the film will also challenge some of our law enforcement and correctional authorities to give the PCL-R a second thought as well.


  1. I heard good things about this movie so I rented Batman Begins last night. I hadn't seen it because all the other Batman movies had been awful. The movie was excellent, easily the best "superhero" movie yet. Character development is so, so very important. I look forward to watching the Dark Knight.

  2. Really? I thought Batman and Batman Returns were both pretty good. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin were both utter shit.


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