When Mental Illness Turns Violent: Joker Is Disturbing, Uncomfortable, And That’s The Point

“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

The above words are pulled from Arthur Fleck’s notebook — the character better known as “Joker” played with an uncanny and unique intensity by Joaquin Phoenix. The movie has become something of a Rorschach test for viewers confirming the unconscious and conscious bias we bring to almost anything these days, especially in polarized times. But aside from the raw and realistic violence, the theme of social unrest and a debate of heroes, anti heroes and villans — Joker’s more simple and obvious artistic statement paints a picture of extreme mental illness and when it hits a tipping point, devolving into violence. It also addresses some of the stigma, isolation and resources (or lack of) that comes with dealing with significant mental illness. It’s uncomfortable partially because having to confront a raw portrayal of this degree of mental illness is uncomfortable as is watching how society deals with the troubled soul that is Joker before he exacts his shocking and violent revenge. Warning, spoilers ahead.

Before Joker’s character fully assumes his namesake, the movie paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to be poor, vulnerable, isolated and yes — significantly mentally unwell to use an understated description of the main charachter’s state of mind. The film makes Arthur’s mental state clear right out of the gate, illustrating his sessions with a social worker and his reliance on medications.

“Arthur, I have you on six medications, surely they must be doing something”

Fleck’s self awareness of his mental state is quite high. He exhibits a condition where he laughs uncontrollably when under duress but has the wherewithal to hand out cards to people to explain his issue so he can be out in public. He knows he has negative thoughts and understands that he needs medication to manage his issues. His awareness of his dire situation peaks when he’s told that social services are going to be cut back and he realizes he won’t have a way to access the medication he needs to just barely get by. And this is where Fleck’s descent into delusional and ultimately sinister madness begins to accelerate. Taking a page out of Fight Club, the film gradually unveils just how sick Fleck is, leading the viewer first to believe he had made a healthy connection with a romantic interest, only to reveal that she was never in the picture and it was all in Fleck’s troubled mind. The twist while not hugely original, underscores the depth of Fleck’s issues.

It’s also revealed later in the movie that Fleck suffered significant trauma from which his own mentally unstable adoptive mother failed to protect him from. It plants the seed of debate into the mind of the viewer: “was Joker born evil, was he a product of his environment or some combination of the two”? Just as it is in life, the answer is complex and subjective and never fully answered despite offering up some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Ultimately the film lets the viewer decide, if this is a place you can even get to as a viewer, for there is so much sensory information to take in from the squalor, to the desperation, to the raw violence and anarchy depicted toward the end of the film.

Mental health advocates are likely going to have an issue with this film as of course the majority of mental illness isn’t criminally violent, yet we also can not escape the connection between being mentally unwell and the possibility that injury can occur as a result either to oneself or someone else. This is why psychological evaluations are conducted to assess if a person is a threat to themselves or someone else. It’s fact, not fiction. There’s a danger in stereotyping and painting with broad strokes, but there are also inconvenient truths about most any topic.

Joker should make you squirm in your seat for several reasons. Yes, it’s graphic and gritty and in a few places, even over the top. It also positions issues highly relevant to our time. How we treat those who are struggling to integrate with society, how we deal with individuals when they’re straddling the fine line between being harmless and harmful. How we view social inequities and distinctions of societal class. And absolutely the film places us in the mind of someone grappling with sanity — we see it from his perspective and at times, we might relate to bits of it even as we reject the whole, gawking at the spectacle with our own sanity acting as the ultimate safe buffer. As the film closes with Joker locked away in an institution, the kind from years past, it simultaneously nods to the plight of the fabled comic character while planting the seed of a question in the viewer’s mind:

“Are there people out there like this”?

It’s a disturbing and uncomfortable thought, especially given the state of uncertainty in the world — and this IS a fictional character after all. But there’s something about the portrayal of Joker’s madness that’s worth contemplating even in the real world. Our expectations of the mentally ill is often that they should behave like they are fine, even when we know they aren’t.

Marketer, strategist, thinker and doer. I write about human behaviors and the relationship we have with technology and brands