May Contain Spoilers
In the same week as World Mental Health Day (10th October) the blockbuster, from the DC Comics’ Batman series, “Joker” was number one in both the UK and US box offices. While the various Batman movies, and the multiple villains that occupy the Batman universe, have alluded in their characterisations to mental distress, this is the first to explicitly use mental illness as a plot device. The film was first shown at the Venice film festival, where it won a Golden Lion and received an eight-minute standing ovation. This was swiftly followed by a backlash with the NYPD covering opening screenings and theatre chains banning masks and face paint, from fears of incel violence. Some critics have cautioned that the film’s depictions of mental illness are reckless and that the film may incite violence. Now we have a backlash against the backlash with some claiming it is an overdue warning against the dangers of austerity.
The film takes the most well-known villain from the Batman series, and follows his descent from unsuccessful clown act and failed standup comic, Arthur Fleck, to the brutal monstrosity, “Joker”. This central narrative is set against the backdrop of a city undergoing a savage austerity programme, with strikes amongst refuse collectors and ‘super rats’ roaming the streets. Set in the mythical Gotham City, the landscape and location closely resemble a New York of the 1970s. Reference is openly made to Fleck’s mental illness. He is shown to have spent time in an institution, and as having ongoing but unspecified mental health diagnosis. He is on a cocktail of seven drugs and visits a social worker and counsellor.
The film is technically accomplished. It eschews the comic book feel that typified many previous Batman films. Instead, the film uses realist conventions and makes for uncomfortable viewing. The central character, played by Joaquin Phoenix, gives a highly convincing, powerful and evocative performance of a man sliding into psychosis. Initially, Fleck is depicted as a harmless misfit incapable of meaningful social interactions. But his oddness attracts bullies, and he is either laughed at or ostracised by those around him. After a colleague gives him a gun, the misfit is transformed into something more ominous, and he enacts terrible revenge on three bullies.
The director, Todd Phillips, makes many references to the works of Martin Scorsese, specifically Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1984). The former influences the visual portrayal of the city and Fleck’s own angry psychosis, whereas the latter is referenced with a cameo by Robert De Niro as talk show host, Murray Franklin. “Joker’s” imitation of these two film classics is a bold move, but one that disappoints.
Taxi Driver is a subtle study of a Vietnam veteran, suffering from PTSD, undergoing a mental collapse and also a portentous comment on the increasing banality of political discourse (one of the political slogans featured in the film is “A Return To Greatness”). King of Comedy is an early critique of the mounting, and vacuous, fascination with celebrity culture. But despite the darkness of these depictions both have a nuanced approach to their subject matter and a surprising degree of humour. Things that were sadly lacking from “Joker”.
For example, “Joker” is politically an ‘ideological mish-mash’ that feels confusing. On the one hand, it appears to be a cutting critique of austerity. In one pivotal scene, Fleck is with his black female public-sector counsellor, who tells him that due to budget cuts, she will be unable to see him anymore or provide him with his medications. She tells him ‘They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur, and they don’t give a shit about people like me either’. Another strand of the film features the Trumpian figure of Thomas Wayne, a billionaire crossing from the world of business into politics who promises that he can save the city from crime and ‘filth’.
However ‘there’s a lack of analysis as to how politics work, and why politics matters’. For instance, Fleck’s murder of his bullies sparks a violent mass uprising by Gotham’s poor, who then copy his clown appearance. Is it really plausible that those most affected by austerity would take the face of a mass murderer as a political symbol? The nihilistic sub-text seems to be that the urban poor are prone to brutality and that this brutality can be initiated by any act of random violence. This appears to be a double misstep as those suffering deprivation are depicted as childlike and aggressively volatile, while little attention is paid to the fact that mass protests take a lot of coordination and are almost always non-violent. So, rather than being a critique of austerity, “Joker” can also be read as having a conservative agenda about how the urban poor need forceful containment.
However, perhaps the most severe shortcoming of “Joker” is its depiction of mental illness. The film repeats well worn and damaging Hollywood tropes about mental illness. Two of the characters depicted in the film, Fleck and his mother, suffer from conditions severe enough that they required institutionalisation. Each is shown to have perpetrated severe (and in Fleck’s case murderous) harm on others as a result of their illness. In reality, all the evidence suggest that those diagnosed with a mental health condition are more likely to be victims of violence or to harm themselves. Representations, such as those in “Joker”, are themselves violent acts against those people living with mental health conditions.
Despite the films technical accomplishments, if we dig beneath its superficial appearance, we find a muddled, derivative and nihilistic narrative that uses the demonification of the mentally ill in order to shock and entertain its audience.