It’s A Mad, Manipulative World: How ‘Joker’ Sees Mental Illness

WARNING: This review contains discussion of disordered behaviours that may be triggering to those suffering from eating disorders. Proceed at your own caution.

‘They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they don’t give a shit about people like me.’

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the way Todd Phillips understands his main character. He’s a weirdo. He’s on seven different medications, doesn’t enjoy one bit of his life, doesn’t understand a single thing about comedy. And obviously, he kills people because, you know, society made him do it and all that. If it weren’t for the character’s infamy through years of comic books and adaptations, this could be any other “mentally ill killer is scary ooh ooh” movie.

Of course, Joker doesn’t say outright what we should make of Arthur. It even tries to make a statement about the way society treats him. These efforts are few and far between, and often in the form of throwaway lines. ‘The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t’, he writes in his diary. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film trying to make us empathise with Arthur’s struggle; but it does feel hypocritical. Phillips treats his Joker as badly as society does. One second he is a broken man, the next a laughing stock. He makes us try to laugh at him then gets angry at us for ever daring to laugh. It’s hard to take the movie seriously when it tells us that our own lack of sympathy for people like Arthur is what turned him into the Joker. It doesn’t have any more than superficial sympathy for him either.

Blaming society for the way someone turns out is the easy way out. Joker slightly narrows it down to rich people and celebrities. Ordinary people are mean to Arthur as well — but they have the decency to keep their hatred private. Talk show hosts and mean bosses are different: have the power to broadcast their disgust. There could be something about the exploitation of mental illness by the rich there — if only it didn’t feel completely insincere.

It is impossible to separate Phillips’ film from Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Even describing him as a shadow of himself is generous. His face is hollow, his body a collection of limbs rather than a coherent whole. It would be tempting to say that he looks much older than he is — but that would be implying that he looks any age at all. He is outside of time and space, a shell more than a man. There is no denying the power of his performance.

What leaves a bitter taste are the methods through which he achieved this sickly appearance. Although he was under medical supervision, Phoenix admits that he restricted food so much that it was the only thing he could think about. According to his own account of the shooting process, he isolated himself from people and social situations to avoid food, felt constantly tired and was obsessed with every little weight fluctuation. Anyone that has ever suffered from an eating disorder or known someone who did would identify this behaviour as clear symptoms of a disordered relationship with food. And they’re not afraid to say it: on many social media platforms, recovered and current ED sufferers share how excruciating the experience of watching Phoenix’s sick body for two hours was.

So can Joker even claim to care about mentally ill people if it excludes them for its audience ? People who suffer from eating disorders are only one side of the equation; few truly mentally ill people would relate to Phillip’s dramatized understanding of it. Similarly, does it care about mental health at all if it is ready to make its own main actor sick in the process ? If this isn’t a movie for the people it seems to want to depict or the people that make it, then who is it even for ?

The tempting answer would be to say ‘everyone else’. After all, Joker is a well made film. It has beautiful photography, a nice soundtrack, familiar character types and half-assed statements about a fictional-but-also-kind-of-not society that fifteen year old cinephiles will love to build their personality around. But it’s nothing new or revolutionary; quite the contrary. The same old story in a particularly pretty and bloody package. In terms of depiction of the world of Gotham city, it certainly is one of the most audacious takes so far; but as far as anything else goes, it probably thinks too highly of itself for its own good.

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