How new film ‘Joker’ perfectly depicted mental illness

Todd Phillips’ Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix has been in cinemas for over 2 weeks now and has generated nothing but Oscar buzz and critical acclaim for the direction of Phillips and acting performance of Phoenix. However, there has been one […]

Todd Phillips’ Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix has been in cinemas for over 2 weeks now and has generated nothing but Oscar buzz and critical acclaim for the direction of Phillips and acting performance of Phoenix. However, there has been one aspect of the film up for debate: Phoenix’s depiction of mental illness. 


Actors such Phoenix – as stated in my previous article discussing why Joker is a cinematic masterpiece – have a sense of creative control over the direction of their character. This role of the Joker was no different. Phoenix did not want to use previous Jokers as inspiration and instead wanted to create a new Joker for the world. He used videos depicting an actual mental illness –pathological laughter – as his direct inspiration for the character of the Joker. 


Warning: MAJOR spoilers ahead!


Joker film


Pathological laughter is described by Science Direct as “an affective disinhibition syndrome of involuntary crying and/or laughing associated with neuronal damage from neurodegenerative disease or resulting from stroke or trauma”. It is important to remember that Phoenix’s character Arthur Fleck does not transform into the Joker for no reason at all. It is after lifelong abuse and neglect as well as mistreatment of his mental illness that lead to his eventual spiral into a murderous, psychopathic killer known as the Joker. 


The use of pathological laughter is interwoven within the story, specifically well during one of the climax scenes which highlight that Arthur was in fact adopted by his mother Penny who suffers from mental illness in the form of psychosis. In the integral scene, it is found out that Arthur was tied to a radiator and almost beaten to death by one of his step mother’s deranged boyfriends. The details of his abuse are fuzzy but it is clear there is a direct correlation between the constant abuse and beatings by the boyfriend and Arthur’s pathological laughter when Penny utters the words “I didn’t know it was happening (the abuse), he was always laughing”. Therefore it is clear that Arthur’s pathological laughter as stated in Science Direct was a result of trauma to the brain due to the abuse of her mother’s boyfriend. 


Joker laughing


The depiction of pathological laughter was heavily praised in an interview by LadBible with Scott Lotan, a man affected by the mental illness. Lotan, who is from Virginia Beach in the USA, has the illness as a result of his multiple sclerosis and stated: “Many times if I am out for a drink with friends, there is someone with low self-esteem that believes I am laughing at them and they will try and start a fight.” A scene is depicted similarly in Joker when Arthur who had just been fired from his job as a professional party clown is riding the subway home. While riding the Subway, he is confronted by a group of three men who question why he is laughing at them. Really he is laughing because he is anxious about the situation which triggered his pathological laughter. The men begin to beat him and throw him to the floor, only for Arthur to have one of his first transformative moments which truly begin his descent into the Joker. As he is thrown to the floor, he reacts by pulling out a gun and shooting two of the men and chasing the third man only to gun him down in cold blood. 


Lotan highlighted his praise of the depiction of the mental illness during his interview with LadBible stating: “At times during the film I felt as though I was looking at a reflection of myself.” Lotan added that Phoenix’s portrayal of the disorder was accurate, right down to the uncomfortable choking during laughing episodes.  


Another form of mental illness depicted effortlessly – and correctly  – within Joker is his episodes of psychosis. Psychosis is defined by Sane Australia as a mental disorder where a person loses the capacity to tell what’s real from what isn’t. They may believe or sense things that aren’t real, and become confused or slow in their thinking. During a scene with his therapist, Arthur discusses his efforts to become a professional comedian and how his therapist does not understand how ineffective their weekly meetings are. Arthur patronises her efforts by imitating her line up of cliché questions. The scene sees Arthur saying “you don’t listen do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts? All I have are negative thoughts”. The scene continues with Arthur asking for his dosage of medicine to be increased. The film highlights that Arthur is currently on 4-5 forms of medication for his mental illnesses and has been for a long period of time. 


"You don't listen do you?" Joker


Psychosis according to Reach Out Australia is due to the fact that prescription medications are known to produce psychotic symptoms. For other people, psychosis can result when they experience difficult or traumatic events. Joker makes it clear that Arthur has undoubtedly experienced traumatic events in the form of his step mother’s boyfriend/s abusing him as well as his addiction to high dosage medication given to treat his mental illness. 


His battle with the aforementioned mental illnesses are slow and gradual. There isn’t just one instance that causes his transformation into the Joker, it is a series of traumatic experiences from his childhood abuse and neglect that led to his pathological laughter, and his therapist choosing high doses of medication to treat his mental illness that bring upon his episodes of psychosis highlighted by the imaginary relationship he creates with  Sophie, his neighbour. 


Both the definitions of pathological laughter and psychosis perfectly encapsulates what causes the unfortunate mental illnesses while the overall story of Joker written by Phillips gives accurate cause and effect for why someone such as Arthur Fleck would have these two very specific mental illnesses. 


Joker dancing stairs


There is undoubtedly an uproar within the public sphere over the depiction of mental illness, however we have to remember one thing… Joker is a movie. Sean Penn in 2001 portrayed a mentally challenged father in I Am Sam. Not only did his depiction of a mentally challenged individual cause controversy for trivialising a complex mental disorder, it somehow earned him an Oscar nomination. Likewise with Tom Hanks in 1994’s Forest Gump, which saw him depict a disabled boy who is similarly mentally challenged. Forrest Gump at the time of its release was critically acclaimed and even earned Hanks his second consecutive Oscar win. However, in post modern times it has been labelled as problematic, like in BuzzFeed’s article ‘9 Reasons Why “Forrest Gump” Is Actually The Worst’


It is clear and has been for a while that as a society our views change over time and become progressive and inclusive. However as stated earlier…Joker is a movie. With most films that depict mental illness and disability there is no real cause and effect for why the mental illness became apparent within the protagonists life. Joker changes this and gives reasoning for viewers and allows them to sympathise and engage with the protagonist. For the first time, the Joker was not crazy for the sake of being crazy. The Joker was suffering; suffering from years of torment at the hands of his step mother’s boyfriend resulting in his pathological laughter, and episodes of psychosis brought upon by his therapist’s lack of care by simply medicating Arthur. For these reasons alone, Joker should be applauded for being one of the few films in recent history that has depicted mental illness correctly.