With ‘Joker,’ director Todd Phillips challenges the black-and-white thinking that accompanies stigma by introducing nuance, empathy, and perspective to the discussion. He proposes that society doesn’t cause mental illness as much as it exacerbates the characteristics and symptoms of it. He’s not fully blaming society and he’s not glorifying or condemning mental illness. And whether he meant to or not, he has sparked discourse that could either push change or devolve into a disaster.
But Phillips has also brought an important point to the discussion: Fleck’s circumstances and the circumstances are intertwined. Fleck and his mother live in squalor and the treatment he receives from psychiatrists is just as inhumane and unkind as the Gotham Phillips so clearly paints. Fear and unrest grip the city, and people are angry.
As far as portrayals of mental illness go, this approach is the smarter option. Rather maturely, it simply explores the interplay between society’s derision and Fleck’s pre-existing condition. Many of Fleck’s most heinous acts are responses or reactions to the ridicule he routinely receives. Seconds before he caps talk show host Murray Franklin on live television, Fleck justifies his actions. But this choice strengthens the stigma as much as it fights it.
It’s a complicated film. It needs to be treated as such. In a well-reasoned piece, Esquire claims that Joker misses an opportunity to enlighten audiences. The article has its insights but it explores the film with a superficiality that doesn’t further the conversation.
Painting those with mental illness as people incapable of healthily responding to societal pressures has the potential to either validate or further stigmatize a condition and the struggles which accompany it. The validation could inspire an increase in services, ones provided by people who work from the belief that these people can’t do this on their own and shouldn’t have to. But negative implications are just as likely. Depicting Joker as reactive rather than responsive might just reaffirm the belief that these people are broken, when in actuality they simply have broken coping mechanisms. It also gives the false impression that every person with mental health issues is prone to violence.
Through a number of violent acts-turned-sociopolitical/sociopathic retaliations, Fleck finds himself the mouthpiece for the destitute and the socially damned as flickering cinders become a burning world. The film’s final moments devolve into an inferno, unmitigated chaos initiated by the oppressed and disenfranchised. Joker stands at the conflagration’s center, palms turned toward a darkening sky, head upturned, eyes closed against a moon obscured by a flurry of embers. He made that. He accepts it. And he welcomes more.
Society has come to the ludicrous conclusion that illness is immoral. The problem with the separation between illness and iniquity is that there isn’t one yet. Not societally, at least. Hence the intertwining of Fleck’s situation and the larger issue. And we as a society must absolutely make that distinction before any progress can happen.
‘Joker’ occasionally reflects that misconception, with most of its problematic ideologies becoming apparent in the film’s final act. Fleck becomes unhinged, smothering his mother in her hospital bed, rehearsing suicide in his apartment, and then braining Franklin with a bullet. Through this, the film mourns society just as openly as it shows what mental illness can become. ‘Joker’ isn’t a reflection of mental illness as much as it’s an earnest, honest plea for compassion. And Phillips puts Phoenix’s character through the wringer in cruel, character-testing ways.
Occasionally tasteless and misguided but well-meaning and sharply-written, ‘Joker’ is a film best examined holistically. So much of the film hinges on us opening our minds and hearts to Arthur Fleck that it’s profoundly heartbreaking and deeply unsettling when he snaps. Granted, it sometimes undercuts its own argument by justifying Fleck’s actions, but the film simply wants us to discuss the issue with more depth, more knowledge, and more care. Its requests are shockingly simple and its implications are painfully complex.
It’s time we met its request.