Joker (2019) - Film Review
IMDB: 8.8 Metacritic:59
**THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS**
The Joker may just be the most famous comic book villain that exists in the world today. Riddled with complexity, the character has attracted some of Hollywood’s most talented actors to the role: most notably Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger who posthumously won an Academy Award for his performance in The Dark Knight. Now, it is the turn of Joaquin Phoenix. The much-anticipated film Joker tells the origin story of the infamous super villain with Phoenix in the starring role as Arthur Fleck. The film was released on 4th October to rave reviews. However, in the days following its launch, there has been some considerable backlash.
So why have I decided to review this ‘comic book movie’ for a medical gazette, when I was originally planning on discussing the plausibility of the main characters still being alive in Grey’s Anatomy? While the Joker is a fictional villain from a world full of superheroes, this film relies on mental health as the catalyst for its central character’s downfall.
I went into the screening of Joker with an open mind. Joaquin Phoenix is a phenomenal actor, and the Joker a phenomenal character. A recipe for success. We first meet Arthur Fleck, Joker’s central character, as he gets ready for his day job as a party clown. In one of the first scenes he is stolen from and assaulted on the job by a group of teenagers. We then learn that he sees a social worker regularly following a recent inpatient stay at the local psychiatric hospital, and depends on them for medication. He also suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, carrying a card to share this information with members of the public. Arthur suffers a series of setbacks throughout the film, including losing the funding for his counselling and medications, which eventually lead him to commit acts of violence against those he feels have wronged him.
The audience is clearly meant to feel a great sympathy for Arthur and his struggles, and to almost celebrate with him as he gets his revenge. However, I felt myself disengage as it occurred to me that the film firmly associates Arthur’s deteriorating mental health with his increasing levels of violence. It was as if the writers had decided to use mental health issues as a lubricant, making Arthur’s fairly rapid descent into villainy easier to swallow.
Beliefs that people with mental illness are inherently violent persist in society. However, violence related to mental illness is rare, especially considering how common mental health conditions are. These negative stereotypes are difficult to shift. When leaving the cinema, I felt that I had watched a film that reinforced these ideas.
In so many ways, Joker is a brilliant film. The acting is other-worldly and Joaquin Phoenix deserves all of the praise being aimed at him. I find it difficult, however, to endorse a film that I feel relies on a stigmatising view of mental health, no matter how sympathetic the character is.