Focusing On Joker's Violence Undermines A Powerful Portrait Of Mental Illness

I was shell-shocked as the end credits rolled on 'Joker'.

But not just for the reasons you might expect. Yes, the violence, when it eventually comes, is shocking. And yes, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is a masterful gut-punch.

No, it was the dawning that the makers of Joker had managed to Trojan horse a movie ostensibly about mental illness and pass it off as a studio comic book movie -- and a potently powerful one at that.

That fact is sadly being lost among the feverish controversy surrounding the film’s violence.

From the offset, Joker is a discombobulating experience. This is a most atypical of comic book movies: no flurry of CGI, no orgy of action, no Joker falling into a vat of bubbling acid to emerge with grand plans to watch Gotham City burn.

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What writer/director Todd Phillips and Phoenix give us is a gritty, edgy psychological thriller set in a Gotham reminiscent of grimy New City, circa 1981. It charts the descent of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally ill aspiring comedian maligned by society, into the Clown Prince of Crime in a vehicle best described as Taxi Driver meets The King of Comedy, two major Martin Scorsese films that heavily influenced Phillips’ vision.

Joaquin Phoenix lost more than 23kg to transform into Arthur Fleck/Joker. (Image: Warner Bros)

And this is not the Joker of old, the “criminally insane” “inmate” of Arkham Asylum. No, this is cold-hard-reality mental illness. Though never clearly defined, severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are two afflictions for Arthur in an alienated existence as a rent-a-clown by day and carer for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) by night. He feels unseen, unheard. He craves validation, adulation, love. His bony frame -- Phoenix lost more than 23kg for the role -- perhaps a metaphor for that hunger.

He also suffers a humiliating and real condition called Pseudobulbar affect , uncontrollable episodes of laughing or crying at inappropriate times.

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What surprised me was how bluntly honest Joker is about mental health, not just for a comic book vehicle, but a mainstream Hollywood movie. Anyone who has had a prolonged mental illness, as I have, will likely find some of Arthur’s experiences relatable. He laments having to attempt to hide his mental illness to be socially acceptable, writing in his therapy diary/joke book; “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur pens an all too familiar truth for those who suffer mental illness. (Image: Warner Bros)

In voicing the pointlessness of his mandated sessions with a social worker where he’s asked the same questions but never really heard, he reveals a sobering truth for anyone who has had severe depression: “All I have are negative thoughts.” At another moment, another heartbreaking statement that rings true: “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.” His mother may have given him the moniker ‘Happy’ but it’s something he’s never really felt.

Joker shows us the unvarnished human side of this villain-to-be, a man who has been institutionalised and released with minimal support, only to be told the city is cutting back on mental health services and he’s on his own.

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In some quarters the film has been perceived as another example of mass media demonising mental illness by conflating it with violence. And in America, detractors of Joker have reeled at Arthur’s admittedly shocking acts of retribution, voicing concern that it will incite 'incel' types to carry out similar lone wolf attacks. All the while the spectre of the The Dark Knight Rises massacre in Aurora, Colorado seven years ago hangs over the film.

US Army Issue Warning Over Possible Shootings At 'Joker' Screenings
Accusations of inciting incel violence misrepresent Joker’s message. (Image: Warner Bros)

Arthur never has any intention of starting the clown-masked vigilante movement, his first acts of violence inadvertently setting it off and making him some kind of folk hero. But accusations from media outlets that Joker is a call to arms to toxic white masculinity misrepresent the movie’s depiction of the character, his mental illness and his eventual violence.

Take this description, for example from Vice which describes Joker as a "disarmingly human portrayal of a jilted white guy who commits acts of mass violence”. The fact that he’s white is immaterial; Arthur is dirt poor and has no privilege in a society that has abandoned him. He’s not “jilted”, he’s been driven to violence (most of it unplanned) by a life of bullying, betrayal, belittlement and abuse.

Some will say that’s an abhorrent excuse but what’s being conveniently glossed over is that the film pointedly, even earnestly, takes its protagonist to task for turning to violence. Also glossed over has been Hollywood’s output of several other recent violent extravaganzas featuring avenging white men like John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum, Rambo: Last Blood, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

But these movies are seen as cartoonish entertainment. Joker, which has less violence than some of the aforementioned films, on the other hand is evoking a response because of its jarring realism.

Phoenix too says he was confronted by his character’s actions, but his way to empathy was understanding Arthur’s PTSD.

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“When I first read it, a lot of his behavior and actions I felt were despicable,” he told IndieWire. “I saw that in certain moments he was in fight or flight. I recognised these signs that allowed me to think about him differently. It’s hard not to have sympathy for somebody who experienced that level of childhood trauma: An overstimulated medulla looks for and perceives danger everywhere. For someone in that state, does it mean his actions make sense or are justified? Obviously not. There’s a point where he crosses the line where I am no longer able to stick by his side. But it allowed me to approach him with less judgment and more compassion than what I had when I first read the script.”

'Joker' Director Todd Phillips Braces For Backlash, Says Movie Won't Have 'Anything' From The Comics
Could you empathise with a violent killer? (Image: Warner Bros)

One of the biggest critiques of the film is that it dares ask us to sympathise and empathise with a man who becomes a violent killer on his journey to “villain”. But that’s missing the point the filmmakers’ are trying to make. What led Arthur to this violence? How much responsibility does society have for the evolution of this “monster’? He’s a cypher for the mentally ill that slip through the cracks.

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“One of the themes we wanted to explore with the movie is empathy and, more importantly, the lack of empathy that is present in so much of Arthur’s world,” Phillips says in the film’s production notes. “It’s not inherent, we have to learn how to be unaccepting of others and, unfortunately, we usually do.”

Joker is brutal, bracing and unflinching cinema. Its makers are asking us to confront mental illness head on, to not look away. If you see the film, I invite you to do the same.

If you need help in a crisis, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.