So that we understand each other…
Let me begin by congratulating Joaquin Phoenix for his well-deserved win at the Oscars. Joaquin is a phenomenal actor, and the Joker proved his acting mettle yet again. The movie in itself is a cinematic masterpiece that delivers as expected.
When I decided to go for the movie, I went as a serious comic-book enthusiast excited to see the infamous clown prince of crime brought to life on the big screen. To my surprise, this was not a comic-book movie at all. This movie was more about a guy- Arthur Fleck, suffering from severe mental illness, about his inability to find help and support, and his tragic descent, where his alter-ego takes over who just happens to be the Joker.
Therefore, this is not a review of Joker as a cinema. This is simply a mental health patient’s take on the depiction of mental health in the movie Joker.
WHAT THE JOKER GETS RIGHT ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS
The state of mind
The opening sequence of the movie hit me really hard, where Arthur is seen pulling the corner of his lips in a smile while tears roll down his eyes. Depression is one of those conditions which pulls you down inside a deep damp hole of self-deprecating thoughts and hopelessness, robs you of any kind of positivity, enthusiasm or energy. Your brain becomes your own worst enemy. The world around you moves on with its purposeful pace while you stay stuck in that hole gritting your teeth at everyone who tells you to “cheer-up” or “be positive”. All of this is beautifully and accurately depicted in the movie.
This is further reinforced in various scenes depicting his dull life where it feels like he is going through time but not going through life. His delusions, possible hallucinations and fantasies only go on to demonstrate the extent of his mental degradation and suffering.
The movie also does an excellent job of depicting the social stigma associated with mental illness. The people around Arthur instead of being sympathetic to his condition choose to alienate him, mock his condition and downright call him a freak. The words are written on his journal – “the worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t” is a fact that almost all mental illness patients are intimately aware of. Living with mental illness requires conscious effort and treatment to maintain normalcy and productivity. It’s a battle that is fought by patients. Every. Single. Day.
WHERE IT COULD HAVE DONE BETTER
Decoupling mental illnesses and violent streaks
I understand that Joker had to be ultimately portrayed as the violent bad guy, but I wish it was done so without using mental illness as a scapegoat. Mental health patients are violent or harmful towards themselves, for which they need our support and understanding, not disdain. In this age, where perpetrators of mass shootings and hate crimes are called mentally-ill just to shift the blame from lack of gun control, this image does more harm than good.
Championing therapy and medication
Another incredibly harmful image propagated by this movie is this- As Arthur goes further away from medication and treatment, the more he spirals into his mental illness, he becomes more confident, in-control and “Cool” towards the end. Nothing could be further away from the truth. If you ignore your mental illness your condition and suffering will become worse (just like physical illnesses).
There is an acute shortage of medical information and support for people battling mental illnesses. My years of living with mental health problems and the issues that we currently face for such problems leads me to say that- as a movie, Joker was a delight – a cinematic masterpiece, at that, but, if you try to take lessons from it, DON’T. Arthur may not want you to.