Funny in the Head: Joker’s Implicit Commentary on Mental Illness is No Laughing Matter

By: Channa Buxbaum  |  November 21, 2019

By Channa Buxbaum, Staff Writer

Visceral, mesmerizing, dangerous, sacrilegious – Todd Phillips’ Joker has seemingly been called everything by everyone in a matter of discourse-heavy months. What is perhaps the most controversial film of 2019 had hopeful beginnings: it received an eight-minute standing ovation, glowing reviews across the board, and even the prestigious Golden Lion after its premier at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Yet the content and dark themes of Joker worried many people who recalled the deadly mass shooting at a 2012 screening of The Dark Knight. Concern over the film’s ability to incite violence only grew when the FBI and US Military cautioned service members about the very real possibility of mass shootings at Joker screenings. Around the same time, Joker’s star actor (Joaquin Phoenix) walked out of an interview when asked if he believes the film might potentially encourage acts of violence. Somewhat ironically, people flocked to the theater to see the subject of contention first-hand. Joker quickly generated $988.7 million, making it the most profitable R-rated movie of all time – as well as a polarizing national talking point. 

The film’s premise is fairly simple — the origin story of comic book history’s most infamous villain. Arthur Fleck is a failed comedian and clown-for-hire who suffers from debilitating mental illness and a neurologic disorder which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times. As the societal disarray in Gotham rises and Arthur’s fear of marginalization is repeatedly reinforced, he undergoes a dark transformation into the terrifying madman we all know him to be.

The progressive deterioration of Arthur’s sanity is molded into an art form by the film’s award-winning cinematography. The film begins with long shots in which Arthur looks small and insignificant in the context of an overcrowded, apathetic city, then moves closer as Gotham’s tension begins to revolve around him. The use of dim light and dark, gritty scenery is juxtaposed with frenzied flashes of light and hot, violent color. A rare moment of sunlight emerges in the now-iconic scene of Arthur dancing down the stairs, gleefully expressing his total liberation from societal norms and the embrace of his new identity as a ruthless murderer. 

Eerily compelling in his performance, Joaquin Phoenix commands viewers’ attention with his haunting portrayal of a man who has been utterly broken by an unforgivingly discriminative society. Put these elements together, and Joker plays out like one long nightmare, one which is startling and immersive and sickeningly real. The film seeks to invite viewers into Arthur’s inner universe, then unnerve them with the irrefutable presence of their own psychological and emotional investment in his story.

Despite the fact that Joker may arguably be categorized as magical realism, given its whimsical, delusion-fueled plotline, it’s nonetheless a powerful critique on contemporary society. It is obvious that Phillips utilizes the relative safe distance of a fictitious universe to lure viewers into asking themselves frighteningly relevant questions. Although the obvious target is the root cause of violent extremism, the focus on mental health is perhaps more crucial and certainly more unique for comic book movies. Namely, Arthur’s struggles with mental health prevent him from abiding fully to the conventions of his society, leading his society to reject him, and eventually, him to reject his society. 

The tension between Arthur’s debilitating psychosis and his desire for social acceptance is central to the film, as demonstrated by conversations with a social worker and a psychiatrist flanking the beginning and end of the film. Phillips asserts that in making Arthur “off” and “just kind of left-footed,” he has purposefully constructed a narrative which confronts “the lack of empathy that we’re seeing in the world.” Indeed, the fault is made to lie less with Arthur himself than with his childhood abusers, the utter lack of available mental health resources, and society’s abandonment of someone who needs it most. 

However, Arthur’s ultimate descent into a life of horrific crime reinforces the inextricable bind within public perception between mental illness and violence. His murderous tendencies are made to seem inevitable, when in fact, people suffering from psychotic illnesses are more likely to harm themselves than others. What Joker wished to do in examining the psyche of the outsider is at odds with what it actually accomplished. In a sense, it doesn’t matter how objectively heart-rending Phoenix’s performance is, how masterfully the film is constructed, or how inventive Phillips wishes it to be. When all is said and done, Joker doesn’t so much criticize a society which rejects mentally ill individuals, as inadvertently justify those rejections. The film’s execution may be top-rate, but its underlying narrative plays into the same harmful stigmas which have existed for millennia. 

Stand aside, Joker. America needs a movie which carries a more progressive punchline.

Photo Source: Warner Bros