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3 Reasons Why “Joker” Is So Brutally Honest

Photo credit: Still from Joker (2019).

by Kelly B. Lewis **Possible Spoiler Ahead** Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” -Ian Maclaren

Firstly, I am not a gory, thriller movie lover at all, and if it were any other movie I would have skipped it along with the rest. Todd Phillips’ “Joker” starring Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix follows the story of societal outcast Arthur Fleck. To say this is simply a villain backstory similar to other villain movies like Maleficent would be significantly missing the mark with such a film, especially if one reads deeper into the messaging throughout the film. Here are three reasons why Joker is so brutally honest.

1. It Causes Us to See the Pain of 24/7 Mental Illness One of the standout quotes from the film was this statement in Arthur’s journal: “The worst part about having a mental illness, is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Fleck suffers from a cocktail of mental conditions, one of which causes his involuntary laughter in highly stressed situations (which we find out later is the result of traumatic brain injuries as a child due to his mother’s negligence). The thing about this is, many of the initial encounters that push him over the edge are due to individuals being so busy with their lives to truly see what is happening right before their eyes. Fleck is seen as just a weirdo, dismissed as a nuisance, or simply mocked and disregarded all because at the root of it, people don’t understand him so therefore he does not matter.

2. It Displays the Complexity of Mental Illness As much as we would like the simplicity of just writing off a cold blooded killer as crazy and completely detached from us “normal people”, Joker displays how as a whole, we essentially have a hand in both creating these monsters, and a responsibility in addressing the situation in our society.  As with most large scale problems, they are created by a million little things, and yet they are addressed in a million little ways. Joker portrays the result of many years of childhood trauma, lack of mental health resources, and a world that fails to take the time to empathize and understand those who are different from us. Similar to a church sermon that makes us adjust in our seats, Phoenix’s portrayal of disturbed and traumatized Arthur Fleck compels some what of a helplessness among the audience as it is essentially too late for his character to be redeemed from his past.

3. It Reminds Us That Mental Illness is OUR Problem Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is so excellent and gripping as Arthur Fleck, that there are frequent scenes in the film where he went off script and led by improv. The honest emotion, the complete investment in the moment, and even the 50+ lbs weight loss he endured for this role were all driving factors with invoking empathy from mindful audiences. However, despite the superb acting, writing, and direction on this film, it has been shared that many theaters had people getting “annoyed” with Arthur’s incessant (AND INVOLUNTARY) laughter, but the question I feel this bears is, why is this the first response? When Fleck eventually begins the brutal killings throughout the film, is Gotham suddenly allowed to be outraged and disgusted? Are we?

The thing about Joker is that it confronts our tendency to write off mental illness as just “crazy” or lunacy, rather than something deeper that requires more of us. Mental illness is not something that can be addressed simply with medication and counseling because there is a social aspect at hand  —- meaning people being more considerate of others, attempting to understand rather than judge right away, and most of all, simply being kind.  Can kindness solve this problem overnight? Of course not. However each of us could make a change in our corner of the world this way —- the next time we go out into the world, let’s remember that everyone we meet has a back story, just like Arthur. There is a reason they are the way they are, just like Arthur. No matter how rude, cruel, or even  seemingly awkward and odd, they desire the basic human connection we all long for —- they have a story too. SO JUST BE KIND.

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