Joker (2019)

Yesterday I saw Joker, a sympathetic character study of the Man before he became the Super-Villain “The Joker” from Batman fame. Joaquin Phoenix plays a man recently released from a psychiatric hospitalization (those in the know about where the character ends up assume an involuntary one?). Overall I found the movie a fair, maybe even an accurate, portrayal of someone living with severe mental illness. I say this as someone who lives this life, as well as someone who has observed and learned a lot about living with severe mental illness from people in support groups and hospitals.

The importance of medication. Arthur knows he needs his medication to keep his life of job and caring for his mother. He questions his social worker how he will get his meds when social services are shut down.

The trials of living with medication. Not only is there the problem of access, there is the problem of if/how the medication works and makes one feel. Arthur wants his meds increased so that he will feel better. Later when he doesn’t have them anymore he says he feels better off the meds. So which is it – better life with meds but there are side effects, or feel better without them? What if it is both?

Misunderstood by society. One of Arthur’s symptoms is inappropriate and prolonged laughing (not necessarily maniacal, though). Arthur even carries a card that describes his affliction so that he can pass it out to people when he is laughing inappropriately. Still, he is dismissed. Even his co-workers don’t seem to understand either his life with symptoms, or how his symptoms affect how he can do his job.

Often victims of crime. Twice we see Arthur beat up, just for his profession (clown) or his symptoms (laughter). A coworker offers Arthur some protection against further crime, not understanding how access to a firearm could be dangerous to Arthur’s own well-being, as we see later in the movie too.

Unreliable narrations of life. Arthur’s journal is full of jokes, observations about stage presence, and rants, including “I hope my death makes more cents [sic] than my life” and “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” One is a brilliant observation; one is suicidal, in context. In addition, delusions create storylines where there was no prior relationship. I so know both kinds of these experiences of not being the most reliable narrator of my life because of symptoms of mental illness!

What Is Unrealistic: Turning to crime (in the vast majority of cases). Ultimately Joker is a Batman Super-Villain origin story, no matter how sympathetic Arthur can seem at the beginning, and he turns to crime whether pre-meditated or a last-minute decision in the moment. This Is Not the case for the vast majority of people with severe mental illness. They are not criminally insane, as this portrayal of the character Joker ultimately ends up showing. The movie is entertaining and engrossing as a character study of someone who turns to violent crime, but in the end it is not a true story of mental illness and violence.

(Read more about violence and mental illness in “Violence and Mental Illness: What Is the True Story?” from British Medical Journal: https://jech.bmj.com/content/70/3/223.short)

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