BY Carrie Dobbin
PSYCHOLOGICAL thriller and long-awaited origin story of one of DC’s most esteemed villains, JOKER (Todd Phillips 2019) was released to controversy that no one saw coming. Finally, details were revealed to support the mystery of Batman’s most popular antagonist. Yet what we found on our screens was not so much an action-filled, superhero vs supervillain storyline, but rather a plot that chronicled the complete unravelling of a man. Joker follows failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he spirals towards insanity and nihilism, which in turn inspires a revolution against Gotham City’s corrupt and wealthy.
Phoenix’s masterful performance was widely praised, alongside Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting score and Lawrence Sher’s visceral cinematography, all resulting in multiple award nominations and accolades. However, the dark tone alongside the portrayal of mental health and violence invited concerns of motivating real-world violence, with one theatre in the US even refusing to screen it. Since the film’s release, Fleck has been analysed by many real-life professionals, who speculate he could suffer from a series of severe illnesses, including schizophrenia and type 1 bipolar disorder. Yet in the film, the character faces no diagnosis. Perhaps this is to draw attention to how, regardless of diagnosis, the system fails him. Historically, severe mental health conditions such as psychotic illnesses have frequently been misinterpreted and misunderstood in screen representation. One critique of the portrayal in JOKER is the association between Arthur’s serious mental illness and extreme violence, which reproduces the stereotype that mental deterioration leads to violence and harm towards others. Arthur’s bursts of uncontrollable laughter, as a means to creatively reflect the mad, villainous laugh of the original character, imply that he suffers from the neurological condition Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), also known as “emotional incontinence”, a likely consequence of his childhood trauma. The use of this disorder in structuring Arthur’s characterisation allows for Phoenix to play him in line with his original DC counterpart, but with a more justified understanding for the disturbing laugh.
Arthur’s slip from reality is foreshadowed in structured psychotic symptoms, delusional ideas that he is a comedic genius, coupled with hallucinations of a romantic relationship with his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Arthur’s instability is reflected as viewers attempt to depict reality in the plot as opposed to hallucinations in his mind onscreen. The film positions us beside Arthur throughout, witnessing every fallout, every isolating moment and kick to the stomach, so that we follow his narrative with a lingering sense of sympathy and empathy at how cruelly he is treated. Arthur longs to be loved, accepted and noticed, by his mother (Frances Conroy), his absent father figure, his psychiatrist (Alice Grace) or veteran talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Yet time and time again, we watch Arthur face mistreatment.
Early on in the narrative, Arthur meets with his therapist, who he claims is not listening to him. These meetings do little to help or comfort Arthur, but rather encourage him to figure things out on his own and continue to take his cocktail of medications. However, when funding is cut and Arthur loses access to therapy and medication, things start to go awry. His routine is broken. His already paltry support system loses an important pillar that stood to keep him grounded with reality, which soon leads to his deterioration. All the while, however, we can recognise Arthur desperately wants to be helped. The inclusion of therapy scenes and a plot point about funding cuts further emphasises the filmmaker’s beliefs regarding inadequate public mental health services. The attitude of Arthur’s therapist suggests she is overworked, which contributes to her lack of empathy and compassion.
As with any film that dares to portray a serious, uncomfortable topic so boldly, there are bound to be criticisms regarding the authenticity of its depiction of mental illness. However, in a society that often ridicules or suppresses those struggling, or in a society that ignores the hurtful impact of social isolation, it is important to bring such issues to the fore. Often, if we are not affected directly by a problem, it is not an immediate concern. But it is this widespread ignorance that allows for issues such as social isolation and underfunded, inadequate healthcare to continue. While JOKER may not reflect the accuracy some critics desired, what is successfully established is a shock factor so that the story has a lasting impact. It raises questions: does this society do enough? Would these things have happened if Arthur had received more help?
The César Cruz quote, popularised by Banksy, holds true here: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” It is only with the disturbance in Phoenix’s portrayal of a good intentioned, lonely, desperate man who is torn from sanity by an ignorant society, who is so bruised and bashed he just wants revenge, that the conversation begins. JOKER had no intention of being the compelling and mysterious, obviously fictional tale of a famous villain wreaking havoc about Gotham City and chasing grown men in masks and capes. It is about a man, on the brink of madness in a harsh, bleak New York cityscape, craving justice and falling short, slipping into the shoes of a villain. Is this the Joker’s true origin story, or is Arthur Fleck the man who inspired a revolution, from which a boy grew into the Joker’s image to later terrorise Gotham and fight a then grown Bruce Wayne? More importantly, could he have been saved?
Looking back on a decade of narratives for the most significant or important films, many spring to mind. Stories that stay with us past the running time, or narratives with a wow factor like no other. But what about those that serve as a loud statement, make you uncomfortable or even highlight a subject matter you were not seeking out but needed to hear? Arthur’s daily struggle is human and palpable; the idea of being overlooked is key. The world is uncaring. The movie demonstrates the harmful act of telling people who are struggling to keep a smile on their face, as Arthur tugs at his own mouth to fake happiness. He admits to his mother, “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life”. It communicates a painful irony from a character who tries to bring joy through comedy while feeling such deep turmoil. The film highlights how intentionally and unintentionally cruel the general public can be, but also the long-term damage of bullying and the pivotal importance of kindness, which often goes unacknowledged. Todd Phillips’s JOKER is a statement piece that all but screams, “Listen to me, we are not doing enough.”
more DECADE >>>