((Originally Posted Novemeber 10, 2019))
As someone with a severe mental illness, I go into most movies that boast a character “suffering” from mental illness with certain expectations and it’s never good. Either the person is a violent, irrational killer because they have a mental illness or they’re an absolute savant that somehow makes the neurotypicals believe that the severely mentally ill are just secretly misunderstood geniuses waiting to be discovered.
I am neither of those things.
I haven’t really seen many depictions of mental illness that stray from these two polarities. Those that attempt tend to be from ages ago and don’t quite hit the mark. Shutter Island, A Beautiful Mind, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They still tend to make me question how much research went into it. Then I’m reminded that there wasn’t much-published research at the time and it certainly wasn’t required for authenticity. Now that there is, we have the chance to show mental illness in theatrical settings the way it “really” is. It can be true for some, overkill for others, but one thing is true: It is NEVER glamorous.
Joker is a character I went in as a fan of. His antagonism goes beyond the realm of just being against the hero, and into the dark, and lately, rarely visited area of pure evil. He is a character well-known and well-loved for his unapologetic and unjustified villainy set against any and everyone. So when I heard a drama was being made about the polarizing character that dared to be an origin story, I was skeptical at first. Then, I saw the trailer. Within that trailer, I saw an homage to insanity, a symbol of the downward spiral and after re-watching to catch every detail that drew me in, I knew I had to see it.
So I did.
Ironically, I actually teared up. Not in sympathy, but in response to how similar and far too true to life some things were for Arthur Fleck. In fact, in all the reviews, I have yet to see a person with a severe mental illness comment on those very real things. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not going to spend a whole time summarizing as the trailer and interviews will give you the general story, so let’s just skip all that and I’ll tell you what this movie was like for a low-income mentally-ill person and why I think it was amazing.
The story itself is not so much a great triumph of cinema as the acting of Joaquin Phoenix is. I viewed it less as a movie in the general sense and more as an intense character study of the Joker. Once you enter that perspective, you can see the genius of it and it opens you to a point of view you would not often take – the point of view of the “madman.” Most reviews and commentary are highly focused on what was real and what wasn’t and I feel that’s a disservice to the film in general. Everyone is so intensely focused on the madness of Arthur Fleck that they are not focusing on why the madness in Arthur spirals oh so dramatically and intensely.
The message is not about a crazy guy who lost his mind. It’s not about a society on the brink of collapse. It’s not about how the media glorifies violence to the point of desensitization. It’s not even about who is solely responsible for everything that went wrong with Arthur Fleck. All of these things are tools for the real point.
Throughout the film, you are given multiple instances where personal choice is the determining factor in a web of events leading to the “Rise” of Joker. It gives you the illusion of being just a series of random events with a lead character as the focal point. However, the events are not important. It’s the choices made by all of our supporting cast. The not-so-noticeable background players around him. Here’s the greatest Set Up of all time:
“Ever just have a really bad day?”
Joker opens with an unnamed clown dancing merrily on the sidewalk to ragtime piano. He appears completely out of place and out of touch with the grunge around him. He seems happy even in such a dour setting. He’s there to entertain you. A group of kids steals the sign he’s twirling and make off with it for no discernable reason. Rather than letting the store owner know what happened, our clown chases them down in a cartoonish sequence. In something that would be very comical in most circumstances – our clown is hit by the sign and then kicked and beaten in something straight out of a merry melody or a looney tune. In this, you get the first sense of brutality in the film and what’s to follow our clown. You later realize that the piano player doesn’t report what he witnessed; he chooses to say nothing. The store owner himself chooses to believe our clown stole the sign and abandoned the job rather than a bunch of ruffian kids made off with it in a cruel joke because that sign cost money, and he wants it from somewhere. Further still, our clown’s boss dismisses his side of the story despite having worked with him for years. Thus, you are introduced to Arthur Fleck: the avatar of everyone’s poor choices and lack of personal responsibility.
Whether or not the events in this film are real or all a part of Arthur’s afflicted mind, Joker shows you repeatedly the results of personal responsibility. This is what is all too real about this movie. From his mother never taking responsibility for her illness for the sake of her child to Thomas Wayne knowing a child was in the hands of a delusional, mentally ill woman – having all the power to stop her from hurting another innocent person and doing nothing.
You can ask, “Why is he responsible for what a batshit ex-employee is doing?”
Easy, because he knows that this is happening and has the power to do something about it. He chooses not to… with dire consequences later.
Everyone in Joker has power in some form that would stop the death of Arthur Fleck and the birth of “Joker” from ever happening. There is no responsibility taken by anyone within Gotham. Even the cleric in Arkham Asylum who hears Arthur Fleck admit out loud that he’s committed a crime doesn’t bother to contact law enforcement with what he just learned and the information needed on Arthur’s mother that would lead them straight to him. This passivity shown by all the characters around Arthur feeds into the downward spiral as Arthur relinquishes personal responsibility for himself and his mental illness. And why shouldn’t he? Everyone else has because everyone has their own problems – usually problems they, like Arthur, are not taking responsibility for either.
Joker shows such a batshit scenario that is so scarily true to life for the mentally ill that it’s easy to see how one not so strong can give up and give into their darker urges in order to be seen and heard in a cry for help that often is acknowledged far too late.
This is why I find Joker so fascinating and a work of art.
It’s not the technical aspects – though they play a huge part in conveying – but the storytelling that makes the life of Arthur Fleck as surreal and real as it is. There is no “glorification.” There is no “it was all in his head.” There was no “he was absolutely evil from the start.” There were only the choices and the stomach-clenching knowledge that if you are not the Joker in this scenario, then you are one of the supporting cast who had the choice to stop him and instead, blamed someone else for not doing so.
Bystander Syndrome is a bitch.
That is what made the Joker such a great and impactful display of mental illness, society, and the massive consequences of even the smallest things.
Joker is standing there telling you a really good joke…
And you’re laughing because it’s true.