Joker, the 2019 movie that earned Joaquin Phoenix an Academy Award for Best Actor, is often subject to debate over its portrayal of mental illness. This post will go through both the goods and bads of its depiction.
What it does well:
Devra Gordon, a Northern Virginia social worker, said that Joker takes an honest look at the daily life of a person struggling with mental illness, and the breakdown of social support for those who desperately need it.
"It depict[s] how one day you have a program, and the next day you don’t. That’s accurate. And you see how that impacts the people you serve. It’s enormously frustrating. We’re dealing with people’s lives."
In addition, Dr. Amanda Mark, a clinical psychologist, stated that throughout the movie, it was readily apparent that Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix’s character) was overwhelmed due to his complex medical history and the increasing demands made of him. Running alongside this, he had next-to-no support system, and what little access he had to resources quickly diminished. This demonstrates the hurdles that people with mental illnesses have to go through daily as well as the unknowing cruelty and insensitivity the public enacts on them. This point is also backed up by Psychologist Roblyn P. Lewter.
Lastly, it showed the impact childhood trauma could have on a person’s mental health, with the movie emphasising that the environment and the experiences Arthur went through were the reasons he grew up to be who he is.
What It Got Wrong:
Mental Illness Inherently Leads to Violence
Arthur’s character is already violent, but his violence is exacerbated when he stops taking his medication, implying that mentally ill people are inherently violent. Studies show that people with severe mental illnesses are in fact more vulnerable to violence from others than the general population - people with severe mental illnesses are 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with severe mental illnesses.
Dr. Amanda Mark elaborated on the fact, saying that being mentally ill does not make you more violent - it is due to the current situation and prior circumstances of a person, such as the abuse they’ve faced and the bad luck they’ve had, which causes them to be violent.
Pozios, a critic of the film, said "It's like (Arthur) went on his killing spree because he is 'crazy,' that's the conclusion audiences come to, which is unfortunate. It reinforces perceptions people might have which are way overblown."
Vagueness of His Disorder
Many psychologists have different interpretations of the Joker’s mental illness in the movie, but one conclusion many have come to is that his psychiatric illness was used as a mere plot device.
The movie implies that Arthur suffers from schizophrenia, with many scenes being described as illusions, and Arthur being said to have experienced hallucinations. However, Dr Ziv Cohen, a criminal psychiatrist and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell University, said "Clearly, the Joker does not fit this mold. He is a very lucid thinker, can pull off incredibly complicated, well-orchestrated villainy, is highly motivated, and is able to interact with others at a very high level, like by manipulating them.”
In addition, the movie attempts to clearly distinguish between a neurological disorder - Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), a rare condition consisting of uncontrollable laughter or crying - and a psychiatric disorder, but in reality there’s less of a distinction, with many of their symptoms and effects overlapping with each other.
Effects of the Movie:
A study done by a team of New Zealand researchers tried to find out the effects that movies had on linking mental illnesses with violence. They investigated two groups of people: one that watched Joker, and one that watched Terminator: Dark Fate. Terminator was believed by the researchers to have the same amount of violence as Joker, but without the clear implication of mental illness. The results showed that the group who watched Joker ended up with more of a prejudice against those with mental illness than those who watched Terminator.
Since films can create such a large impact on people’s views on mental illness, as well as their views on the people who suffer from them, filmmakers should be mindful of how they portray mental illness and make sure not to stigmatise it.
However, Joker is an amazing movie which tackles tough issues like poverty and the wealth gap, and whether violence is justified. Just be aware when you watch the movie that the events it portrays are all fictional.
"Why Joker's depiction of mental illness is dangerously misinformed." 21 Oct. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/21/joker-mental-illness-joaquin-phoenix-dangerous-misinformed.
"How Accurate is 'Joker's' Portrayal of Mental Illness? - USA Today." 23 Oct. 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2019/10/23/what-joker-movie-gets-right-wrong-about-mental-illness-violence/3978028002/.
"The Joker: How The Movie Depicts Mental Health - AdventHealth." 11 Nov. 2019, https://www.adventhealth.com/hospital/adventhealth-orlando/blog/joker-how-movie-depicts-mental-health.
"As a psychiatrist, I was blown away by the latest Joker - Sydney ...." 26 Oct. 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/culture/movies/as-a-psychiatrist-i-was-blown-away-by-the-latest-joker-20191024-p5340p.html.
"Association of Viewing the Films Joker or Terminator: Dark Fate With ...." 24 Apr. 2020, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2764842.