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Joker movie review: Mental illness is no laughing matter

Joaquin Phoenix walking through subway in full Joker makeup.
Joaquin Phoenix walking through the subway in full Joker makeup. Pic credit: Warner Brothers/DC

Mental illness is nothing to joke about. And with Joker, it’s a dark black uneasy depiction of how someone with a pre-existing mental condition can snap. There’s nothing funny about the movie and when one does laugh, it’s nervous laughter.

And by the time the credits roll in Joker, the viewer will either be blown away by the film’s unbearable realism of the subject or scared of the film’s possible influence. And neither takeaway is wrong given the unfortunate timing of the film’s release.

The movie which is based on the famous Batman villain centers on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonesome aspiring comedian who lives with his mother and works for a clown for hire business.

Arthur also suffers from a neurological condition that forces him to laugh even when he finds nothing funny at all. And because of this, he has to hand out cards to strangers, to explain his behavior to those who are uncomfortable.

Phoenix’s depiction of the laughing condition known as Pseudobulbar affect is haunting as well as heartbreaking. The way he does it makes the act of laughing — which normally is a joyous experience — seem unbearably painful.

And when he tries to quit laughing, he makes a choking sound which makes the laughter sound like torture.

Arthur also has to take medication for all his problems and has to meet with a funded social worker to stay on medication. And he tells this professional every visit that he feels dread and anxiety about the world around him, that everything about it has become terrible.

The film’s portrayal of how the world treats mental illness is probably the strongest part of Joker. The hardest part of having such a condition is that individuals who suffer from mental illness are basically living with a disability that cannot be seen.

Because of this, it makes it hard for most people to understand or take the matter seriously.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. Pic credit: Warner Brothers/DC

The most heartbreaking line in the film is, “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to live like you don’t.” For people with mental illness, there is an inherent shame because they suffer from the condition.

Viewers can tell that Fleck wants help. He just has nowhere to go to get it.

And this is aptly displayed when the movie shows the city of Gotham cutting budgets for people who treat these conditions. Just like real life, when the government has to make sacrifices, it’s usually the most vulnerable who suffer.

The consequence is that Arthur can no longer refill his prescriptions because he can’t afford a doctor. Thus, making him spiral further into madness.

Once he does snap, the film becomes a Rorschach test for audiences. The violence depicted in Joker is timely to a fault. And in no way is it anyone’s fault for having an adverse reaction to the last half hour of this film.

Many people have died due to mass shootings in the past several years, so it’s impossible for it not to be an afterthought walking out of Joker. But it will make some justifiably uncomfortable.

Joaquin Phoenix in full Joker transformation smoking a cigarette.
Joaquin Phoenix in full Joker transformation smoking a cigarette. Pic credit: Warner Brothers/DC

It should also be said that not having Batman as a rival in the film will put some at unease as well. Not having a side-by-side comparison of “good vs. evil” makes the Joker seem like the hero of his own twisted story, which doesn’t help fight the argument that the film is not glorifying Arthur Fleck’s violent choices at the end.

But still, for better and worse, the movie will spark a conversation. For that alone, Joker is successful.

A conversation needs to take place about how we treat people who mentally suffer. And while Joker is an uncomfortable overly violent aggressive glance at the subject, it’s undoubtedly trying to say something on the matter.

Between the strong direction of Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix’s heartbreaking and disturbing performance, Joker is an experimental achievement.

Given the current climate, it will not be for everyone and those who suffer from their own illnesses may want to proceed with caution. That said, it’s one of the best-directed films from DC and one that should survive the test of time as the world begins to heal.

Joker is now playing in theaters everywhere.

John Dotson is a film and television reviewer and commentator from Texas. His favorite part of what he does is getting to discuss film and... read more
John Dotson

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