Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Joker, every edgy boy’s new favourite film, opened this weekend to polarising reviews. Some critics praised the gritty look into the origins of everyone’s favourite psychotic clown, and Joaquin Phoenix’s undeniably impressive performance. Others condemned it as potentially encouraging other “unhinged loners” to commit similar acts of violence. What very few critics seem to have picked up on is how the film wildly and dangerously demonises some of the most vulnerable in society: the mentally ill.
Further praise has been given to the film for starting a crucial conversation around mental health. Up to a point, I would agree. The central character is shown to suffer greatly in a world that doesn’t understand him. It is society that is a danger to Arthur Fleck, and not vice versa. This is a detail that most films featuring a psychotic character feel the need to worry about. Yet at some point in the movie, he snaps, moving from the subject of our pity to the subject of our disgust: the villain we love to hate. The director, Phillips, has said that he just wanted him to come across as “off” (whilst the depiction of his pseudobulbar affect is somewhat realistic, this does not explain his personality/mood/psychotic disorder). Phillips has done what most writers and directors have always done, which is use the umbrella of “madness” to justify any type of behaviour in their villainous characters, behaviour which has no bearing on the reality of psychotic illnesses. Insanity seems to be something which gives storytellers a license to be as creative and twisted as they like, rather than a very real illness. Personality disorders are playgrounds for writers/directors, the film Split being another cartoonish example.
Inaccurate and insulting stereotypes are being clamped down on in the film industry, and rightly so. However, when it comes to psychosis, a word that still instils fear in people’s minds, very few people seem to be batting an eye. Joker certainly falls into the trap of caricature, a trap that many films seem to revel in. It 2 features a violent and insane man, and the ward scenes are populated by caricature upon caricature of psychotic patients. From my own experience, these portrayals of people as childlike, less than human, and inherently violent, could not be further from the truth.
Psychosis is more than just a lazy way to chalk up a character’s behaviour, or an out of the blue plot twist with absolutely zero explanation or resemblance to the reality of the illness, as some mental health award winning Fringe plays would have you believe. I’ve even see people performing psychotic patients with the same accent and mannerisms as Heath Ledger’s Joker, or plays that, whilst claiming to be an accurate representation of a psychiatric ward, simply repeat behavioural tropes of the psychotic to comedic effect.
It would be hypocritical of me to say I don’t enjoy films like Joker, but they leave a bittersweet taste in my mouth. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be made, I’m saying that they need to be made in a culture that knows that what they are seeing depicted is a fantasy. And I get it. Why sit down for two hours and watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest when you can enjoy a flashy story featuring murderous psychos in a loony bin? If there were more realistic, human, dignified portrayals of severe mental illness in the media, alongside these more fantastical depictions, perhaps the real people with these conditions would not feel so monstrous.