One Mentally Ill Writer’s Thoughts on Todd Phillips’ Brilliant ‘Joker’ Film
WARNING: This piece contains LOTS OF BIG SPOILERS from the new Joker movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop right here and do not go any further— unless of course you’re not planning to ever see the movie, in which case, please continue on!
I’ve been battling a severe form of obsessive-compulsive disorder for more than twenty years of my life. In college, it cost me not one, not two, but three different jobs. I’ve lost countless close friends who just couldn’t make heads or tails of my compulsions. I once went two full years without a single hug or handshake from another human being. I know all too well the toll that mental illness can take on a person.
Needless to say, I’m also very much aware that media portrayals of mentally ill people have proven reliably preposterous for at least as long as I’ve been alive, though I try not to get too worked up or offended by that. Experience has taught me that the medical community’s understanding of the causes, mechanisms, and consequences of mental illness isn’t nearly as thorough as it needs to be, so I never expect Hollywood’s depictions of the mentally ill to be flawlessly reflective of reality. Besides, mental illness isn’t experienced the same way by every single person who suffers from it, meaning that no Hollywood director or screenwriter could ever hope to demonstrate the full range of devastating effects mental illness can have on a person’s life.
When I finally went to see Todd Phillips’ Joker film, though, I feared the worst. I know who the Joker is. I know what he’s supposed to be capable of. And I know that mental illness alone isn’t an adequate explanation for how a person could become as vengeful, as predatory, and as destructive as every previous iteration of the Joker character has been. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent, yet mental illness is often erroneously cited as a common cause of violent behavior. Hollywood has a well-documented history of helping to perpetuate that fallacy, and I was concerned that Joker might take it to an unprecedented level.
As it turns out, that concern was entirely unjustified.
Phillips didn’t take the easy way out with Joker by portraying Arthur Fleck as just another depthless, natural-born madman. Arthur never would have transformed into the Joker character if it weren’t for his deteriorating mental health, but his mental illness(es) wasn’t entirely responsible for that transformation; it was the loss of purpose that pushed Arthur over the edge. In that respect, I have everlasting pity for Arthur Fleck. I don’t know what it feels like to have nothing to live for, but that’s only because I’ve always had someone to live for. Arthur, sadly, does not. Once his mother’s history is revealed to him, he realizes that the only genuine, loving relationship he’s ever had was based on an illusion, much like his imaginary relationship with his neighbor Sophie Dumond.
Purpose is normally found in our relationships with people. Arthur gets that, which is why he clings onto the (false) hope that he’ll one day make it as a professional comedian. He wants to provide something of value to someone other than his mother. He wants to provide laughter. Comedy is his pipeline into a world of mutual affection and appreciation, an opportunity to connect with his fellow Gotham citizens on a level he’s never known. But he’s destined to fail in that endeavor for the simple reason that he doesn’t really understand what comedy is. He can identify it, and he can mimic it, but he can’t create it, so he never escapes the devastating isolation that’s ruining his life. That’s why Murray Franklin’s jab at Arthur’s failed comedy club appearance is so indescribably cruel; Franklin turned Arthur’s alienation from society into the butt of a terrible joke.
Though it may very well be the most compelling, most disturbing, and most beautiful version of this story that has ever been told, Joker isn’t the first or only film to tell it. Joel Schumacher’s prophetic thriller Falling Down told a very similar tale and told it almost as well as Joker. The film stars Michael Douglas as William Foster, an unemployed, working-class antihero whose only real reason for living is the family from whom he’s been forcibly separated via a restraining order. He spends the last day of his life engaged in a nihilistic crusade against the everyday barbarity, dishonesty, and elitism that society takes for granted. He stands up to a couple of gangbangers who try to rob him at knifepoint, then proceeds to shoot up a fast food joint where the burgers look nothing like the plump and meaty treasures pictured in the restaurant’s overhead menu. Later in the film, he scares a wealthy, pompous senior citizen into a literal heart attack after said citizen tries to hit Foster with a golf ball.
The scene that really stood out to me, though, is when Foster encounters a genuine Nazi. The man in question — a beefy, bald-headed bigot who runs two gay men out of his military surplus store — ushers Foster into a storage room to show him a hidden cache of military-grade weaponry and World War II memorabilia. The Nazi store owner heard about Foster’s rampage at the fast food restaurant and assumes that Foster was targeting black customers. Foster responds by accusing the Nazi of being a “sick asshole” and proceeds to kill him, signaling to the audience that Foster’s descent into madness hasn’t completely compromised his sense of right and wrong. Buried somewhere deep within his embittered soul is the spirit of a decent, well-intentioned man drowning in confusion and self-contempt. Yet the Nazi can’t see who Foster really is; he only sees the man he wants Foster to be.
Something similar happens to Arthur in Joker. After he kills the three yuppies who assaulted him on the subway, Gotham’s media grafts a political agenda onto his actions, jumping to the conclusion that the killer clown’s confrontation with three well-to-do professionals might have been the opening salvo in a forthcoming class war between the city’s haves and have-nots. But the reality is that even though both Falling Down and Joker have plenty to say about politics, culture, and the marginalization of the downtrodden, neither Foster nor Fleck are the least bit concerned with any of those things. They’re not trying to make any political statements or start any revolutions. They’re just two unstable people desperately searching for meaning and purpose in life while their cries for help continuously go not just unanswered, but almost entirely unnoticed.
Seeing as how it almost always coincides with the loss of any meaningful connection to humanity, the loss of purpose is an incredible trauma to have to overcome. It’s not at all difficult for me to understand how that trauma might be enough to send a severely mentally ill person over the edge, nor would it be difficult for me to empathize with just such a person. I don’t subscribe to a deterministic view of life. I don’t think that every single decision we make is purely a byproduct of processes outside of our control. But I do understand how powerful a broken mind can be; how it can manipulate you into feeling like you’ve lost all control over your own destiny; how it can overpower your better judgment and compel you to lash out at someone who has hurt you even when you know that forgiveness is the better, more righteous path; how it can paralyze your soul and leave you frozen in time while the rest of society moves on without you.
Arthur suffered horrific abuses that catalyzed his transformation into the Joker. He resisted that transformation as best he could, but the odds were always stacked against him. He didn’t have much support, as evidenced by his therapist’s apparent indifference toward his struggles. His coworkers toyed with him. His mother failed him. Murray Franklin exploited him. The system cast him aside. His fate was sealed long before the film’s closing credits began to roll, and he has every right to be furious about it. That doesn’t absolve him of his inexcusable violence, but it does place that violence in a context that pulls Arthur back into the realm of redeemability. He wasn’t born evil; he was made evil. But his humanity is still intact and, with the proper medical care, could one day reemerge to liberate him from the clutches of his sorrowful past.
Some critics and reviewers have passionately objected to Phillips’ sympathetic portrayal of Arthur Fleck, arguing that it promotes toxic masculinity and serves to validate the violent inclinations of angry male outcasts — incels and mass shooters, to be more precise. I disagree. Joker is a character study, not a courtroom trial, so it never explicitly condemns Arthur’s worst behaviors. But frankly, it doesn’t need to. The bone-chilling lack of remorse Arthur exhibits as he suffocates his feeble, bed-ridden mother; the eagerness with which he pursues and murders the sole surviving yuppie from the aforementioned subway confrontation; the bloody grin he flashes at the end of the film as he stands atop a Gotham police cruiser, basks in the riotous atmosphere he helped create, and fully embraces his newfound identity; these are not the actions of an archetypal hero, an archetypal antihero, or even of a wayward vigilante whose ruthlessness distracts from his laudable goals. Each and every one of those scenes is designed to make us cringe, make us sick, make us abhor the person Arthur is becoming. This is not a man that anyone, least of all the mentally ill, should look up to or aspire to be like.
The film’s third act does push the narrative away from the category of psychological thriller and closer to a revenge fantasy, but it never quite crosses the boundary between the two. Those of us who cheered Arthur on during his homicidal campaign did so mostly for the same reason audiences rooted for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained, and Russell Crowe in Gladiator; we cheered for Arthur because he deserved the catharsis that had eluded him in the first two acts. However, the extreme violence he perpetrates against those who have wronged him doesn’t deliver that catharsis. All it delivers is more confusion and pain. That’s how we know that Joker isn’t an endorsement of Arthur’s brutality and rage. Had Phillips and the film’s writers intended otherwise, Arthur’s methods would have paid off by bringing him some degree of peace and comfort. Instead, they only hasten his transformation into the deeply troubled Joker.
Arthur’s character arc is a long-winded soliloquy on what occasionally happens to vulnerable people when they’re subjected to more suffering than they’re designed to tolerate and society chooses to turn its back on them. His mental illness(es) renders him incapable of negotiating the agony he experiences in a healthy and productive way, and the system he should have been able to count on leaves him hanging out to dry. The Joker is thusly born and elevated to the position of revolutionary figurehead, which in turn gives rise to the violence and chaos observed at the end of the film as Gotham’s citizens take to the streets to rebel against the various systemic traumas they themselves have endured offscreen.
At the conclusion of the film, there are no winners to congratulate or spoils to pass around. Gotham City is eating itself from the inside out, and Arthur is happy to take the credit for this sorry state of affairs because it’s better than the nothingness that was creeping up on him before he became the Joker. It’s virtually impossible to cast that outcome in a positive light, and Phillips never tries. It was never his intention to do so. Arthur Fleck is supposed to be a sympathetic protagonist, but the Joker is something different; he’s Gotham’s Darth Vader, a manifestation of a once-decent man’s darkest impulses unrestrained by reason or ethics. The audience should spare at least a few driblets of pity for him, but they aren’t supposed to idolize or admire him. His story is a worst-case scenario in which the cycle of abuse has been gifted its own avatar in the form of a maniacal villain, and now all of Gotham will be treated to a small taste of the misery that Arthur had spent his entire adult life trying to escape. It’s a tragic conclusion for everyone involved, most especially for Arthur himself.