Balancing the Unbalanced: “Joker” and Mental Health
It’s late Monday evening here in Japan as I sit down to write this piece.
With the Blu-ray finally coming to Japan, I was able to sit down and re-watch Joker. I initially saw the movie last October, but as I’m sure any of your friends who have seen it will tell you, this is a complicated movie and one that takes time to fully unpack and process.
I’m not here today to review the movie, others have already done that quite some time ago. What I am here to do is to give a perspective that many reviewers cannot, focusing on how this movie deals with mental illness, and society’s reaction to it.
Beware, spoilers ahead.
Before we begin today’s commentary, in best editorial practice, I should give you a couple of what the younger folks call “trigger warnings”.
I am a mental health survivor, and in tackling this story, I will talk about some of my own experiences, my own opinions and how these relate to Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of The Joker.
We are aware that many of you read our stories, our reviews and our general nonsense as a means of escape from the often toxic political slanging matches that plague social media today.
However mental health, indeed healthcare in general, is a political issue, and it is perhaps the foremost of a number of political issues covered in Joker.
Therefore it would be disingenuous and indeed intellectually dishonest of me to dance around these issues.
The movie faces them head on, and so must we.
With that out of the way, let’s begin.
First off I have to say, Joaquin Phoenix is an actor I didn’t have too much experience of, going into this movie. I had seen Gladiator, which I wasn’t overly impressed with to be honest. I did, however, love his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.
I had read a lot of the pre-release hysteria surrounding this movie. Some said it was a “rallying call for mass shooters” others said it was going to be a glorification of “incel” culture.
Of course, none of the idiots who wrote any of this sensationalist, attention-seeking crap had actually seen the movie. Their fake fears are, as I expected, without foundation.
That’s not to say that Joker isn’t a deeply unsettling, disturbing descent into one man’s madness, it most certainly is.
The funny thing is, prior to release, the movie seemed to be courting controversy mostly among the left-leaning media, concerned that in positioning a mentally unstable white man as its “hero” it was setting a horrible precedent.
However, having seen the movie, and the scathing critique it levels both at the callousness of capitalism and more directly, it’s complete evisceration of America’s current approach to mental healthcare, I think it’s probably far more likely to upset people on the political right.
For his performance of a mentally ill man, Joaquin Phoenix deserves all the praise going. In portraying a character who, ultimately, becomes a mass-murdering psychopath, it would have been all to easy to have simply defaulted to a Jim Carrey-esque, gurning madman, squealing incoherently, pulling funny faces and dancing through one negative mental health trope after another.
Phoenix didn’t take the easy option. He has clearly done his research. While I have battled depression, and suffered a breakdown in the past, I have never experienced psychosis on the level of Arthur Fleck. However, what was in equal parts heartening and chilling for me, was just how much of Arthur’s experiences, in the early stages at least, really chimed with my own.
I’ve felt that same frustration, knowing that the meds aren’t working, knowing that you are slowly, but surely losing control, losing your sense of perspective, indeed in the darkest moments, losing your very grip on reality. Friends can seem like enemies, acts of kindness can be met with suspicion, and conversely you can you find yourself developing feelings and affection for people, who in reality, you really don’t know at all.
While I was never fortunate enough to act out a fantasy in my mind where I get it on with a woman like Zazie Beets, I could really relate to Arthur’s social awkwardness.
His misreading of situations, his desperate, heartfelt desire to be liked and his inability to understand why people do bad things for no reason other than that they can, it all really hit home with me.
One moment, pivotal for Arthur in the movie, was a direct parallel to something that happened in my own life.
I reached a point in my early twenties, where I was seeing a therapist on a regular basis, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It was a case of sit there, pour out your heart and at the end she makes notes, hands you a prescription for more ineffectual meds, and off you go.
Arthur directly confronts his therapist in the movie. He looks her straight in the eye and says “You’re not listening!”
The difference is, I saw that as a crossroads, after which I ditched that therapist and sought about healing myself in other ways. Arthur Fleck never has that opportunity, and it is from that point that you begin to realize he is truly irredeemable. He’s going mad and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. Perhaps The Joker would never have come to be if Arthur Fleck had taken a leaf out of my book: Moved to Japan and gotten laid!
Joking aside though, it is from that point on that I began to lose any real connection that I felt with Arthur, and that is, I believe, intentional on the filmmakers’ part. This is where his final support systems collapse, and where Arthur’s path and my own diverge.
I moved to a new country, leaving behind the things that hurt me, the sources of my trauma and my anxiety. More importantly, throughout all of this, I had the unconditional support and love of my parents and my family. Arthur never has any of this.
The metaphor of the garbage strike, which runs in the background throughout the movie, is none too subtle here. Like those mounds of trash that are ignored by wider society, the mentally ill are the human garbage of this piece. Cut adrift, deprived of any support, any hope and left with a harsh choice, let the madness consume you, or embrace it and make it part of you.
Arthur chooses the latter and this is where The Joker is born.
He admits, on his climactic appearance on The Murray Franklyn Show, that he no longer has any regret about killing those “awful” people on the subway. And of course a short time later, Franklyn himself, who has been subtly bullying Arthur through a series of cheap jokes about his “viral” video gets “what he f**king deserves” at least according to The Joker, when he receives a bullet to the brain.
Ultimately, that is the challenge of Joker. Arthur Fleck is a sympathetic character, The Joker isn’t.
The point at which one is superseded by the other is left open to interpretation. Indeed, the fact that you are never entirely sure what is real and what isn’t, since the entire film is told from Arthur’s perspective, is a beautiful mirroring of the confusion and disorientation that comes with mental illness. We aren’t sure what’s going on, because neither is Arthur.
What makes this a great character study of mental illness, beyond just being a superb film, is the movie never patronizes you by offering any easy answers. Mental health is a battle, its one I am still fighting now, and will, most likely have to fight for the rest of my life. We are all, in essence, just a bad day or two away from being derailed.
Joker understands and respects this. It doesn’t glorify The Joker’s actions, but it doesn’t condemn them either.
Ultimately, some will see Arthur Fleck/Joker as a hero, others will see him as the villain.
Personally, I see him as a victim. A victim of a society that unashamedly proclaims, if you get sick, its your own fault. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault, and if life shits all over you, too bad, deal with it.
Many of those who seem determined to undermine and detract from the success of this film, are probably afraid to confront the over-arching message it offers.
Our society is sick, we have lost our empathy for our fellow human beings, we have become selfish, self-absorbed, cold and cynical. Such a society is the perfect breeding ground for mass-shootings, ideological extremism (both right and left), and for the emergence of someone like The Joker.
To paraphrase another comic book movie, Joker may not be the movie we need, but at the moment, it is the movie we deserve.
2 thoughts on “Balancing the Unbalanced: “Joker” and Mental Health”
An excellent piece of writing. I thought the Joker was a fantastic movie! And it was great to see a movie have the guts to tackle mental illness.
I’m fortunate to not have experienced mental illness. However I have been close to people who have. My father is a psychiatrist and he has often told me how disappointing it is to see the constant cuts in healthcare towards mental illness.
Thanks for the kind words and for sharing, Julian! Liam did a great job of discussing the issues you’re referencing, it’s certainly a very tough subject. Stay well!