Warning: Major spoilers for “Joker” below.
Arthur Fleck has a condition. He can’t stop laughing. When a mother scolds him for joking with her child, he laughs. When rich tycoon Thomas Wayne calls him crazy in the bathroom stall, he laughs. When he gets nervous telling a joke at a nighttime comedy club, he laughs.
Fleck carries a card with him — one that explains he has a condition that creates uncontrollable laughter. He’ll automatically start laughing without control. It’s his natural bodily reaction. He tries his best to hold it back. He chokes to stop laughing. But the ha-has gush like water from a fountain. The laughter floods out of him without a dam to hold it back.
It gets him into trouble. He gets beaten up. He gets punched in the mouth. He is publicly humiliated. He is ridiculed.
That condition is real. It’s called the pseudobulbar affect, or emotional incontinence, which leads to uncontrollable episodes of crying, laughing or other emotional displays. It’s a secondary condition to a neurologic disorder or brain injury, something that Fleck, we learn throughout the course of “Joker,” surely has.
The parts of “Joker” that explore mental health make for an interesting film. Rarely has a blockbuster like this explored the damage society can do to someone with mental illness. Fleck is called “crazy” over and over again. He’s called a freak. He’s beaten in the streets. He’s ridiculed. His mother, Penny Fleck, is slandered for having psychosis and massive fits of delusion. And it’s all a joke. Characters address Fleck and his quirkiness, his little ticks, his uncontrollable laugher, as a joke. No one takes his illnesses seriously.
“Joker” falls short in fully diving into the mental health questions it raises, though. Instead, it focuses on Fleck’s descent into madness without actually saying anything about what it means.
There’s a lot going on with “Joker,” the new Todd Phillips film starring Joaquin Phoenix. The film is violent, with gunshots, stabbing and fights. The story’s arc shows a mentally ill man being beaten down by society and finding his vice — violence. And that’s the biggest problem.
“Joker” could have been an epic film about the way society treats those with mental illness. It could have been a story about those who don’t have the resources, the know-how or the proper environment to find the help they need. “Joker” could have opened up a real discussion about these issues.
Instead, all the blood distracts from what could be a serious conversation about mental health.
The ‘Joker’ controversy
But there are a number of critics who slammed the film for its glorification of a mentally ill white man.
There have been a number of reports about the possibility of violence breaking out at “Joker” screenings. The Los Angeles and New York police departments planned increased visibility for showings. The U.S. Army reportedly sent out a notice about a credible but not specific event. Landmark Theaters even banned cosplay over the issue.
For these reasons and more, I argued in a piece for the Deseret News last week that “Joker” is the wrong film for our time. Conversations with experts revealed that this film has the possibility to incite violence among those who find Joker — a historically violent and cult-like figure — to be a hero.
“It’s not the reasonable people that are seeing it that we need to be worried about,” Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council, told me. “It’s the people that are seeing it and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve been mistreated too.’ ‘Yes, society has been jumping on me my whole life. And, you know, maybe I should follow this example.’ That’s the thing I think that we need to be concerned about.”
And I stand by that statement. “Joker” isn’t the right film for 2019. Scenes of protests, riots and attacks feel like they should be celebrated. They’re all moments in which Fleck WINS in the film. His success comes from violence, death and destruction. He wins because he destroys. He’s victorious because he causes chaos.
Toward the end of the film, Fleck decides he’s going to commit suicide. He’s going to exact violence on himself (although it teases that he may attack someone else) while appearing on a late night television show with comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). On the show, Fleck rattles off his thoughts on the damage society does to someone like him — how he is ignored, stepped over, tossed to the side. He says Gotham City is worried about rich people dying, but ignores people like him. The speech is easily ignored because we’re waiting for the gunshot — we’re waiting for him to attack himself (or Murray). When the violence comes, his speech is forgotten. An important point about how society treats people is swept under the rug. We’re all waiting for the punchline, instead of hearing the joke.
What could have made “Joker” a good film for 2019 would have been a better focus on the mental health issues it only briefly explores. If the film had made that final speech about society and mental health a big moment without the tension of impending death, then the message might have come across stronger.
The mental health questions
In “Joker,” there’s a huge discussion to be had about the role social services and the government play in how those with mental health conditions find help. Fleck — after a brief stint in a state mental hospital — meets with a social worker. She encourages him to write in a journal. He does. But it’s full of dark jokes, pornography and sketchy drawings of a man gone mad. The signs are there, right before the social worker’s eyes, that Fleck isn’t stable and needs medical attention. He asks for more pills. She writes a prescription. And then, just as he begins opening up more, she tells him that the government has taken away their funding. Fleck no longer has someone to talk to. Fleck asks where he’ll get his medication. There is no answer.
A 2018 study found that lack of resources for mentally ill Americans could be a root cause of the mental health crisis in America. The study found that mental health services in the United States are insufficient despite more than half of Americans seeking help. Limited options and long waits are normal.
The study included an online survey of 5,000 American adults and an analysis using third-party data that measured people’s access to providers, facilities, funding and perceived satisfaction among patients.
“There is a mental health crisis in America. My experience establishing mental health clinics across the country, coupled with this study, shows that more needs to be done to give Americans much-needed access to mental health services,” said Dr. Anthony Hassan, the president of Cohen Veterans Network and its chief executive officer. “If we want to save lives, save families and save futures we must reimagine our behavioral health system and take concrete steps to improving consumers’ ability to find the care they need, when they need it, and on their terms.”
But “Joker” uses the mental health issue as a twist. There’s one point where Fleck comes to grips with what’s been going on around him. He finally realizes that his girlfriend, though a real person, isn’t his girlfriend at all. Throughout the film, viewers are treated to scene after scene of Fleck and his girlfriend together — kissing, holding hands, hugging, being a couple. But then, one night, he breaks into her apartment. She doesn’t recognize him. It’s all been a hallucination. It’s treated like a massive twist that pushes him over the edge. But we’re not actually having the discussion about what it means for his mind.
Other disturbing scenes act just to disturb rather than to teach about mental illness. At one point, Fleck, as he descends into insanity, climbs in a fridge. In another scene, he gets into a fight with two men. He decides to kill one and not the other. But we don’t ever really go deep into why these moments matter. It’s just pure chaos without explanation.
It’s even sadder that Fleck has no one to help him. Fleck has no one to listen to him anymore. He has no resources. No more medication. No more ways to heal from the issues caused by his mother and abusive stepfather. He is a victim. And he is always a victim. And, maybe more importantly, he’s a victim of the system.
That would have been the theme of a much more focused movie. Instead, it’s hard to praise Fleck as a victim because he ends up murdering a near half-dozen people (and surely inspires countless others). Cue the blood, the gore, the cursing and the destruction.
I wish Fleck had a better outlet for his condition. I wish he had been saved at the end of the film by someone or some type of system. I was hoping for a thoughtful end.
I left the “Joker” screening shaken up by what I saw. Knowing that something like this could happen in the United States today rattled me in the same way the Aurora, Colorado, shooting did, since I previously worked at a movie theater.
I couldn’t give “Joker” a standing ovation. I couldn’t clap or celebrate it. Sure, Phoenix’s performance is worthy of an Oscar. I have no problem admitting that.
But it was hard for me to cheer. Fleck’s demise was a sad result of what happens when the mental health system gives up on you and when you have nowhere to turn.
I only wish others would walk away from this film understanding that.
Maybe “Joker” should have taken a cue from “The Dark Knight.” Though a violent film, “The Dark Knight” was never gratuitous — always cutting away from the darkest scenes. It left you knowing what violent act occurred without showing it.
“Joker” is a film with a lot to say about mental illness, mental health and how society doesn’t care for those caught in the system. But there’s too much blood-splattering violence for the film to appropriately teach us anything significant.