‘JOKER’ is the Most Important Film about Mental Illness in Post-Modern Cinema

There is a term for the fear of, and subsequent feeling of superiority to, other races: racism. There is a term for the fear of, and subsequent feeling of superiority to, others who are attracted to the same gender: homophobia. There is a term for the fear of, and subsequent feeling of superiority to, foreigners: xenophobia. There are clinical terms for the fear of spiders, fear of clowns, and even the fear of witches. There is a distinct irony in the fact that these terms are derived from various mental health organizations, yet the fear of those who are mentally ill is not included. There is no term for the fear of the mentally ill. When confronted with such antagonism, the mentally ill are forced to “put on a happy face” when told to by family, friends and society-at-large. Because, if they don’t, they will be discriminated against. 

“The worst thing about having a mental illness is people expect you to act like you don’t” is something that Joker’s main character, Arthur Fleck, writes to himself. The reason he writes it to himself is because no one else will help him. He asks for help, but doesn’t get it. 

Todd Philips is best known as a comedy director, having directed Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover, and therefore he is one of the more unlikely filmmakers to make a movie as seemingly dark as Joker. I had reservations going into the movie for just this reason. However, after watching the film, I’ve come to realize that a comedy director had to make Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s character of Arthur Fleck is someone who suffers from mental illness, an illness that isn’t diagnosed in the film, but features the inability to control one’s laughter. In fact, it is this inability to control laughter that rears its head at the worst possible moments; moments marked by distinct seriousness; moments that elicit reactions the very opposite of laughter. When Fleck suffers these fits during inappropriate moments, he hands a card to those offended by his laughter that explains his “condition.” While this operates as a clever device—a device that exists to humanize a comic book character—it is much more than that. 

People forget that laughter is an involuntary response; not just for Arthur Fleck, but for everyone else, too. It’s no surprise that Philips recently lashed out against the incursion of political correctness in entertainment, claiming that “woke culture” has destroyed comedy. His film, Joker, is itself a comment on this culture. We live in a moment in time when our president makes serious comments and expects the public to take them as jokes, and comics make jokes that are taken seriously by the public. This subversion of norms is deranged, much like Joker himself.

The violence that is depicted in this film is not only necessary, but also vital to conveying the movie’s themes. I’ve seen more gratuitous violence in some movie trailers on YouTube than I witnessed in the theater watching Joker. If the violence in Joker is pedestrian, compared to most other violent R-Rated movies, we need to ask why some critics and people are so upset—unusually upset—over the violence in this particular film? I think the answer is simple: if this film were not connected to comic book intellectual property, audiences wouldn’t bat an eyelash. This Joker’s behavior is a far cry from the “POWS” and “ BOOMS” of the violence associated with the Joker in the original television series. Of course, there was Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight; however, we had already been introduced to his particular universe of Batman in a preceding film and knew, by and large, what to expect. Furthermore, while more realistic in tone, the Christopher Nolan series of films still retained the distinct aura of action film formula—the violence is non-stop, perpetrated by all the main characters, and the audience members are still well-aware they’re watching a film outside the world of their own. Nolan’s Gotham was still a conceit, there was distance; Philips’ Joker eliminates the majority of that distance. The only thing that separates us from the immediacy of his characters is the film’s 1970s time period. If it were set today, there would be no distance, which would risk alienating his audience. By retaining a modicum of distance, Philips is able to reflect our current society, but in a manner that’s digestible. While at the same time, he goes to great lengths to eliminate the comfort associated with movies that are steeped in comic book universes. Perhaps that was part of Philips’ point. Perhaps he knew that the association to a comic book, however minimal, was a way to catch his audience off-guard, a way to inject them with his ideas when they least expected. 

If the film were a literal reflection of today, it wouldn’t be set in the ‘70s; furthermore, it would be absent of allusions to the comic books of our own reality. Joker, as inhabited by Arthur Fleck, would simply be a masked anarchist, not an extension of the DC Universe. Todd Philips knows this and he exploits it. In contrast to how the studios have been exploiting comic book films for years, Philips uses the universe to bring us back to reality, not to help us escape from it.

The filmmakers have indicated that the film is an homage to early Scorsese films. It most certainly is, and this includes its strict use of first person point of view. This is the approach Scorsese took in Taxi Driver, which employs expressionism as a means of conveying the inner thoughts and feelings of Travis Bickle. Within this stylistic framework, Arthur Fleck becomes our sole lens through which to view the events that take place in this film, events that—due to his daydreams, flashbacks and unreliable narrative—are not fully credible. The events in a film are only as credible as its main character and his or her perspective. Do we take Arthur’s point of view on events seriously? Even after some events he thought had occurred proved to have not happened at all? Even after these experiences, and his memories of these experiences, proved false? If we cannot trust his point of view, how can we take the film seriously? Perhaps Arthur Fleck is right; this story is a comedy.

Comedy is subjective. There is no comedy without its counterpoint: tragedy.

The motif of reversals in the film serves to underscore Philips’ themes. The film pleads with its audience to reverse the stigma of mental illness, and to do so by stigmatizing those who stigmatize persons who suffer from it. I am not equating such an action to murder, but the very real effect of mental illness often embraces death as a relief. If this movie is to be criticized outside the realm of art, it might be criticized for implying that Arthur Fleck’s killing spree is a literal result of his mental illness. We are living in a time when the reaction of our country’s leaders to mass gun-related murders is: the gun isn’t the problem, it’s the mentally ill person with the gun who is the problem. The knee-jerk assumption, and public consensus, regarding mass shootings is that the gunman is always mentally ill. Such a reaction is not only bogus, but also extremely dangerous. It casts a negative and malicious connotation onto an entire group of people who, statistically, are much more likely to hurt themselves than others. I ask those who don’t suffer from mental illness, but who identify themselves with a minority group in this country, to imagine for a minute the President of the United States stating at the White House podium: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims of today’s mass shooting, and we assure those families that we will be working hard to stop the epidemic of gun violence in this country. But it’s important to remember, it’s not the gun that killed your family members, it was the homosexual person shooting the gun who killed them.” Or: “…it was the black person shooting the gun who killed them.” Or: “…it was the woman shooting the gun who killed them.” Imagine the outrage.

It’s the Arthur Flecks of the world who are outraged that their plight isn’t being taken seriously, and when the marginalized continue to be ignored, continue to be denied the help they desperately need, continue to be forced to suffer in silence, they will begin to rebel.

The potential danger that surrounds this film is that the audience will take the heroism associated with Arthur Fleck’s actions literally; however, it is clear it is a movie. It is apparent that it is narrative fiction. It is clear, I assume, that the audience is aware they bought tickets at a box office, sat down in a theater and watched a made-up story being projected onto a screen. Watching this movie is not watching the news; it is not witnessing a mass shooting; it is not real. The murders Arthur Fleck commits, and the mayhem his followers perpetrate on the public, are a manifestation of the main character’s internal feelings. Feelings of resentment, of being ignored, of impotence and inadequacy; we are meant to feel the effect of the violence, not witness the reality of it. If these murders were filmed from the objective perspective of a security camera, the emotion would be drained from it entirely, and I dare say the spectator would be less affected. I believe they would be a lot less distressed by this violence than the violence in a film like Joker. That’s the power of art.

Joker is a clarion call to action, but it’s not a call to kill everyone who doesn’t understand. It’s a call to take mental illness seriously. It’s a call to understand the pain and suffering those with mental illness experience. It’s a call to recognize the mentally ill as the oppressed minority that it is. It’s a call to stop avoiding the issue and confront it head-on and without shame. 

Arthur Fleck is one man pushed to the limits of his damaged mind. He’s not representative of everyone’s experience with mental illness. He is the most extreme of representations. This is precisely the reason why Fleck’s struggle is the focus of this movie. In an era of extremes, when shades of grey have ceased to exist, the audience must be presented with the most extreme of situations in order for them to pay attention. Most comic book films traffic in opposite extremes: heroes and villains. This comic book film defies this convention, merging hero with villain, in order to shock viewers out of their complacency and desensitization to violence—if the heroes cause violence, it’s okay, but when the bad guys cause violence, it’s not. But what if we were to empathize with the villain? This doesn’t mean condoning his actions, but attempting to understand why—through his thoughts and feelings—he takes such drastic, and inexcusable, measures. Everyone has the potential for both good and evil; that is the truth.

In a culture where the loudest voices are all competing to be heard, the voices of the mentally ill are almost always muffled to the point of nothingness. Therefore, is it surprising that a character like Arthur Fleck chooses the path of nihilism? Other paths simply don’t exist for Arthur, and as he destroys others along the path he chooses, he ends up destroying himself. Prior to donning the mask of the clown, his followers wore a different mask, the same mask, the mask of normalcy, submitting to the expectation that one must be like everyone else. This expectation leads to riots and to the fascistic irony that they have become what they are rebelling against. They become a group of people who force their will onto others without seeking to understand their victims.

It is telling that the movie begins with Arthur Fleck seeing a psychiatrist and ends with Arthur Fleck seeing a psychiatrist. The difference, of course, is that his first psychiatrist is unable to help him—she cannot prescribe him the drugs he needs—whereas his last psychiatrist is much more interested in helping him—she is able to prescribe him the drugs he needs. The twisted, and all too real, irony is that Arthur had to kill someone and be incarcerated in order to get the help he needed and continues to need. Unfortunately, at this point, Fleck is beyond repair—the system has failed him and help has become an afterthought. He, both literally and metaphorically, kills the help he’s finally able to get.

William Dickerson is a filmmaker, author and musician who recently adapted his novel No Alternative into a major motion picture starring Michaela Cavazos, Conor Proft, Chloe Levine, Kathryn Erbe and Harry Hamlin. The film, which tackles mental illness, is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Film Threat declared the movie, “a rare indie gem that delivers solidly on all fronts with no missteps.”

What are your thoughts?