Warning: Contains spoilers
‘Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?’
This is a question Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’ Joker, puts to his psychologist. ‘Out there’ is the garbage and rat-infested Gotham, where poverty and social disquiet are on the rise. The word ‘crazy’ is deliberate. It is the habitually repressed and discredited antithesis of ‘normal’, in this instance the capitalist social order, a system allergic to difference and contest.
Hollywood films have a long history of misrepresenting mental illness, exaggerating its danger or its sufferers’ propensity for violence. It’s a bankable trope. Think of the memorable films that have involved psychopathy, psychosis or another form of mental illness. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Fight Club (1999) and even other iterations of the Joker character such as in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). All of them portray mental illness as cautionary, excluded, something to be feared and by necessity resolved through punishment or death.
Arthur Fleck’s descent into full-blown killer is prefaced by his use of medication, his counselling sessions, his loneliness and eventually his delusions. He is the typical unreliable narrator, a ‘madman’ whose perspective is not to be trusted. Arthur is different. He is ‘weird’ and a ‘freak’. He has a ‘laughing sickness’ and his mannerisms are often childlike, even innocent.
His laughter is perhaps the most interesting. It is incongruous, untimely, uncoordinated and makes little sense to rational people.
J.C. Gregory in The Nature of Laughter says that ‘in anger there is one emotion and many manifestations of it, for laughter the converse seems to be true’. In other words when it comes to laughter there are many emotions and one manifestation: ‘the same mechanical motion’. It’s the underlying emotion of Arthur’s (and by extension the Joker’s) laughter that audiences find difficult to place, but there is no coherent emotion to decipher because he is ‘crazy’ and he himself discloses that he finds killing people funny. The division between mentally ill and rational, sane people becomes evident through one of the most basic human traits—laughter. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Will to Power, ‘perhaps I know best why man is the only animal that laughs: he alone suffers so excruciatingly that he was compelled to invent laughter.’
Sitting through Arthur’s ‘laughing sickness’, is however not an escape from suffering but a form of suffering itself; it’s disturbing and it makes audiences uncomfortable. As J.C. Gregory notes whereas laughing at infirmities and deformity was common in the past ‘the growth of the sympathetic spirit has affected laughter’, it has humanised it. But in Arthur’s character that humanisation seems to have been reversed. His laughter, and its cause—his mental illness—excludes him from sympathy. After his first triple murder his body rejoices; a kind of cathartic dance. When he murders his former co-worker, he reacts as though nothing has happened. Mental illness finds itself positioned as antithetical to good conscience.
That positioning of mental illness in Joker is then used to foment violence and social disorder in the form of ‘kill the rich’ riots and anti-capitalist resistance. Having placed mental illness in its own grotesque phenomenology, what might seem like genuine grievances of the masses become a narrative of madness and the confusion. As Beasley and Brook note in The Cultural Politics of Contemporary Hollywood Film, films can be seen as a kind of ‘political technology’. In Joker this plays out in a contest between order and mental illness and between order and democratic resistance.
The embodiment of that resistance to the greed of the rich is the clown. In traditional Chinese theatre the character of the chou, loosely translated as ‘clown’, plays a role in the inversion of hierarchies and, says Thorpe, ‘transgresses culturally accepted moral codes as a means of publicly defining them in the minds of the audience’. In many ways the clowns in Joker also do away with decorum and power structures through violence, riots and eventually the murder of the wealthy Thomas Wayne, Batman’s father.
When three employees of Wayne Enterprises are murdered, Thomas Wayne appears on television: ‘Those who have made something with their lives will always look at those who haven’t as clowns’. Like Trumpian ‘deplorables’, the masses take up the moniker ‘the clowns’, wearing clown masks, holding signs which read ‘we are the clowns’ and ‘kill the rich’. Unlike Trump’s deplorables, the clowns’ political sentiment (less the killing) would normally be considered progressive. Yet we are not driven to feel sympathy: they are faceless, inspired by a deluded and mentally ill Joker.
When the character of the Joker is invited onto a television talk show, hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), he says he is not political and doesn’t care about the protests going on. But this is of course the statement of a deluded mind. In fact, he is not just political, he is violently political. His anarchist sentiment has been taken up as an anti-capitalist message by the clowns who, just like Joker, feel slighted by the system.
In Burton’s Batman (1989) and Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) both Jokers are presented as having no interest in money—as being anti-capital. Jack Nicholson’s Joker throws cash to the public in front of city hall during a street parade, Heath Ledger’s Joker burns mountains of bills, adding ‘it’s not about money, it’s about sending a message’. All these Joker characterisations are presented as anti-capitalist. They are also presented as mentally ill madmen, who don’t hesitate to use violence to disrupt the social order. In Madness and Cinema Patrick Fuery states ‘madness risks meaning in order to be heard; it is the hinge between established ways of thinking and their radical other.’ In Joker madness is presented as chaos, anti-capitalist social upheaval and violence. It poses risks too high for ‘sane’ law-abiding people like those in the audience. The system needs to re-establish the order through punishment, imprisonment or death just like a villainous chou meets his end in traditional Chinese theatre.
It’s not an uncommon conjunction. A study by Lawson and Fouts on the representation of mental illness in Disney animated films found that 85% of them used mental illness to separate and denigrate characters, characters referred to as ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts’. Writers like Erin Heath in her book Mental Disorders in Popular Film says that misrepresentations of mental disorder are deeply entrenched in the Hollywood studio system. Joker is no exception.
But the Joker’s character, both in Joker and in Burton’s and Nolan’s films, has conflated madness with unjustifiable anarchy, anti-capitalism and a challenge to good order.
Towards the end of Joker, we see Joaquin Phoenix laughing in a way that suggests he finally sees why it is that he laughs. His psychologist asks, ‘what’s so funny?’ He simply replies ‘you’ll never get it’.
We also don’t get it, and we’re not supposed to.