Watching Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in ‘Joker’ for the second time, stirred in me a greater sense of emotion than during my first viewing of this highly anticipated Todd Phillips production. Whilst the film has stirred controversy in its inference of the connection between mental illness and violence, some argue that the film postulates a dangerous misrepresentation of such disorders, it certainly rouses thoughts about our perception and treatment of people suffering with mental illness. The production tackles head-on the protagonists’ relationship with a savage society, in which he has no place.
Poignant moments in the film include Arthur Fleck’s plea to his negligent counsellor to increase his medication, to which she replies reminding him that he is ‘on seven medications, surely they must be doing something?’, implying that he should feel privileged about being prescribed the amount of medication that he is already on. Perhaps this is a sensation relatable to many of us suffering with mental disorders, that there is shame in feeling as though the help is not working for you, and feeling embarrassed and a failure in having to ask for more.
It is difficult not to be moved by the reception of Fleck’s undisguisable condition of uncontrollable laughter. At his attempts to retrieve the card that he carries, explaining his condition, he is violently attacked or scolded and judged. Furthermore, Fleck is asked if his condition is ‘part of his act’, in his capacity as a hire-clown and aspiring but failing stand-up comedian, underlining the degree of misunderstanding of the lack of control that people have when it comes to their mental health. The phrases “can’t you just snap out of it?” and “you’re just being like this for attention” spring to mind.
All in all, I certainly left the cinema with a strange sense of guilt. I had just sat for two hours watching an isolated and vulnerable individual abused, victimised and violated for something which he had absolutely no control over.
There is not one drop of sympathy for Arthur throughout the entire film, an absence which leaves us feeling as empty and alone as Fleck does. There are moments of devastation for the depressed character, which we feel deeply on his behalf.
The film rouses in us considerable empathy and understanding for the protagonist, but this feeling, of which the intensity is so apparent within us, is something that we should be taking and giving to someone real, rather than this fictional but representative helpless hire-clown.