Joker: A Psychological Perspective
The Joker is and probably will be the most talked about film of the year. As a result of Joaquin Phoneix’ jaw dropping performance, the film’s critics has created several outlandish claims, such as the film sensationalising mental illness, the movie trying to make us feel sorry for a mass murderer, and society being at fault for mental illness. This post aims to critique the film by giving a psychological perspective. Please note that this of course is an opinion based post and produced for entertainment rather than information. And of course, there are spoilers throughout.
The film did an excellent job to demonstrate the fall or Arthur Fleck and rise of Joker through scenes that were simply difficult to watch. While glued to scenes displaying the despair of mental illness throughout, I could not help but notice the stigma around mental illness budding its head through the cracks as fellow cinema goers laugh awkwardly whenever the joker laughs because of his neurological problem. Something so far from mental wellness makes the audience feel uncomfortable. And it is no doubt that this is exactly what the director Todd Phillips wanted to portray as the investigators ask Arthur ‘is your laugh really a neurological problem?’.
Every good film has a start, a middle and an end. In most films, we get introduced to the protagonis, who then faces adversity and he or she then overcomes the adversity to become the hero of the story. The reason why this film is so brilliant is because it follows the same storyline, but the hero is the villain. The start of the film consists of an explanation behind how the Joker gets to where he was. The adversity is his existence. From an objective state, taking all of our prior conceptions of Joker out of the equation, Arthur is someone who has a history of trauma and a genetic vulnerability to mental illness (his mother suffered from mental illness). In relation to his thinking patterns, he openly states that he only has negative automatic thoughts, he has completely blocked out the trauma from his past and his joke diary consists of continuous ideation about death and hopelessness. From a lifestyle perspective, he is severely underweight, he has no friends, he is trying to take care of his mother when he is struggling to take care of himself, he loses his job and he does not enjoy his life. He also suffers from a fit of uncontrollable and exaggerated laughing or crying known as pseudo-bulbar affect (PBA) as a neurological side effect of his trauma and he is on several different types of medication, which he is then taken off. He has a social worker who he doesn't connect with and because of funding cuts, she then has to cut the service, which puts further pressure on the mental weighting scale that is Arthur’s life. Finally, his feelings are always invalidated. His boss tells him to give back the sign after he was mugged, his mother tells him he’s not allowed to be angry when he finds out about his adoption and his social worker ignores his statement that she never listens to him. These symptoms of unhealthy thought patterns, a very poor lifestyle and lack of social support would very much indicate that the Arthur is very mentally sick. It is likely that he is depressed.
On top of this, Arthur also has an irrational belief that he should be the light for the people and he is obsessed with the idea of being famous. This is portrayed in his fantasies of being on the Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) show. This can be portrayed as a fantasy, but some could argue it is also a delusion. Regardless, this indicates that symptoms of a personality disorder such as narcissistic personality disorder (a grandiose sense of self, lots of fantasies about self, thinking one is special, lacking empathy, having a sense of entitlement) or antisocial personality disorder (repeated unlawful behaviours, poor planning, lack of organisation, deceitfulness, lack or remorse etc). Further evidence of this is that his mother's file stated that she also had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But let's not get bogged down on diagnoses. The point here is that it is clear that the Joker had one if not two mental illnesses.
As the movie progresses, we then see Arthur move towards the Joker as he begins murdering people in his life. This gives him a purpose, albeit destructive, but still a purpose. He firstly murders the three men on the subway. As he kills the first two, he could argue that it was self-defence from them assaulting him. However, he then seeks out the final and third man and murders him as well, which puts him over the line as a villain. After finding out about his mother neglecting him as a child and lying to him, he then suffocates her. As his coworker returns, pretending to be nice to him so he can protect himself, Arthur then brutally kills him and his final act is publicly shooting Douglas Murray on his own tv show. The final murder spectacularly creates one last scene as the shooting leads to Arthur genuinely laughing, followed by his arrest; his escape onto the chaotic but appreciative streets of Gotham, and finally a mental asylum where he appears to continue causing bedlam. For anyone who believes that these could be the actions of a person with mental illness are highly disillusioned. People are arguing that the film makes out that people with mental illness are to be feared. However, the issue here is that people are creating a dichotomy. That there are two types of people in the world: People with mental illnesses and people without it. This is ridiculous as people have different types of mental illness, differing in severity and symptoms. The joker does not represent mental illness. He represents a certain type of mental illness that has not been treated paired with delusional fantasies and continuous triggers of his trauma. While it is possible that this personality type paired with trauma and depression could exist, it is more likely that Batman would exist (because if you remember, the Joker is a comic book villain). Someone who has cancer does not have a broken leg, and someone with arthritis does not have a cold. We would never make these fabricated explanations for physical health, so why would we do it for mental health? Just because someone has a mental illness, it does not mean that they are going to go on a murdering spree. Anybody who believes so needs to be educated on the matter. Enjoy the film for what it is, but don’t let it guide your perception of mental illness. Because films aren’t real, Gotham isn’t real, and most importantly, the Joker isn’t real.
The film is excellent because of the Joker's powerful character development (Jaoquin Phoenix is in every single clip of the film). As a consequence, this led to some arguments that the film tries to make you feel sorry for a mass murderer and psychopath, to the extent that murder is almost acceptable. However, these claims are incorrect. Todd Phillips does not make us feel sorry for the Joker. He makes us understand the narrative. It is important that we highlight the difference between empathy and sympathy here. Sympathy is what the film is accused of. It’s forcing us to feel sorry for the Joker, which then irrationalizes our thought patterns, therefore accepting the chaos that he creates. On the other hand, empathy is understanding how someone else feels. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. As the film is from the perspective of Joker, we emphathise with him and consequently, we understand why he does what he does. BUT we don’t feel sorry for him. This is the perfect ending. Arthur becomes the Joker when he asks Douglas to refer to him as just that and the film is complete. The protagonist has faced his adversity, he has overcome it by finding meaning and he is now where we were before we left off: The ultimate villain.
And a final point that should be highlighted is the society vs. Joker narrative. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash”. This belief plays out that society is the antagonist and Arthur is the victim. The argument is that it is a political representation of the rich (the three men on the subway who worked from the Waynes’) vs the poor (the Joker). However, I disagree with this and instead believe that the Gotham society is simply a setting that allows the Joker story to flourish. The important aspect is how the society creates interactions between people, regardless of background. If people were nicer, the Joker would not have went down the dark path he did. Society does let him down with unemployment, the cutting of his social services and the obsession of fame through Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) but it is too easy to blame society. Instead, it is essential to highlight that the individual cases of the young people mugging him, his coworker giving him a gun and then denying what he did, and his mother lying to him about his childhood are what trigger the Joker’s rampage and not society itself. The two people who show compassion to the Joker is his neighbour, Sophie, and his work colleague, Gary, and this gives him hope. But this hope is quickly tarnished when both Sophie and his co-worker become scared of him. Therefore, I think the message of the movie is not that society is to blame for mental illness, nor is it that you should go on a killing spree if you’re not the same as everyone else. It is that you should show compassion, regardless of others’ differences. It doesn’t matter if someone is dressed like a clown, if someone uncontrollably laughs for no reason, or if someone is sick. We should still treat each other like human beings. A huge part of our mental health is connection so being nice to someone else can go alot further than you can ever imagine. Just ask Gary, his dwarf co-worker.