Joker from a Therapist's Perspective: Reflections on Mental Health and Society
Joker has received mixed reviews – some praising Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of a complex character, others disappointed by its lack of nuance and potentially harmful misconstructions of mental health
Therapist William Leifer reviews Joker from a psychotherapist's perspective
Writing this review, I had to ask myself, what more can one say about Joker? Probably the most controversial, and also one of the most popular, movies of the year? And is there any way that my own expertise as a therapist could be of any use in thinking about this film? In fact, this seemed to me the most important question.
So I am going to address two things here – first of all, what I think of the Joker as a portrayal of what it is like to suffer from mental health problems. The answer to that, for me at least, is simple – it is not very good. The second thing I will address is whether there is anything useful from the point of view of psychotherapy to come out of this movie. And in that regard I think there is.
Please note there will be a few spoilers!
Why Joker falls short on mental health
Put very simply, the problem here is that Joker is developing into a mass killer, and this is explained, in part, by his deteriorating mental health. By the end of the film he seems devoid of empathy, revelling in chaos, simply killing for fun. And yet elsewhere in the film he is shown as a caring and compassionate human being. He may have many serious problems: a compulsion to laugh at inappropriate times, depression, low self-esteem and also, once his medication runs out, loss of touch with reality as he starts to hallucinate.
Nevertheless, with all this going on, he looks after his unwell mother with great tenderness. He makes a stranger’s child laugh on the bus, seemingly for the pure pleasure of adding joy to the world. Even his hallucinations are of a relationship filled with love and care. And the reality is, people who are as empathetic and kind as Arthur Dent is portrayed to be do not tend to become serial killers, and certainly not overnight.
In portraying Joker’s rapid transformation, a transformation at least in part due to his worsening mental health, the movie perpetuates stereotypes of people with mental health problems as being threatening and violent. The reality is, that people with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims of violence rather than perpetrate it.
So while this something problematic about the Joker, is it perhaps expecting a lot for this movie to present a nuanced vision of someone suffering from mental illness? In interview, Joaquin Phoenix said he prepared for the Joker by reading about political assassins and watching YouTube videos of people with compulsive laughter, but emphasised he was creating a fictional character. He has said he didn’t want a psychiatrist to be able to identify that character as having any particular disorder.
What Joker might get right
And this brings me on to what I think is really interesting about the film, from my point of view as a therapist: its ambiguity. The Joker captures something about the atmosphere of the times we are living in. There is a sense, that a lot of us have I think, that we are living in a very scary and uncertain age. An age, perhaps, where the social order is unravelling, and no-one is sure what will come next.
Of course, in the world around us our collective response to this feeling of dread is expressed in many ways – in the polarisation of political opinion, the rise of leaders like Donald Trump, the chaos around Brexit, movements on the left of politics against ‘the 1%’, popular movements against the rising possibility of environmental catastrophe.
Joker seems to reflect this sense many of us have of living in a dark world where it is very hard to enact positive change. And I think the film cleverly reflects this anxiety back to us in a way that reveals to us our own anxieties and obsessions about the times we face, without telling us what to think about them. I have been fascinated by many of the reviews I have read that seem to remember details of the movie differently than I do. One insists that the Joker does not hallucinate; yet to me, he clearly hallucinates an entire relationship! Another claims we are obviously meant to think he murdered the very woman he hallucinates a relationship with – something that was not at all obvious to me. In both cases, the things that I thought the reviewer had got wrong about the movie were important in backing up their own account of what the movie was about.
The Joker, then, clearly reflects something back to us about a sense of a society that is breaking down. But the way we ‘see’ that breakdown, depends on the preoccupations, worries and hopes we bring to it. Take the character of Thomas Wayne for example, standing for election as Gotham’s mayor. It is possible to see him as part of an out-of-touch metropolitan elite with a kind of contempt for ordinary people; he is someone who describes protestors as ‘clowns’. Perhaps he is a stand-in for Hilary Clinton and her ‘deplorables’? Or does he represent a more right-wing politician perhaps, a ‘strong man’ like Trump, who claims he can fix all of society’s problems? He is certainly an independently wealthy businessman; a representative of the ‘1%’. I don’t think the movie tells us what to think about this; but whatever we see may tell us a lot about our own particular take on the world around us.
As a therapist I would say this is what could be really therapeutic about this movie; it reflects back to us a sense of darkness and pain about society many of us have right now, but leaves it up to us to interpret what we see. And what we see in the movie can help us understand ourselves – our passions, our pain, and also our prejudices – particularly if we are willing to join in the conversation with others about how they have responded to the movie. And particularly if we are open to the fact that whatever way we see it, there are many other ways which are worth thinking about too.
In this way perhaps we can understand and express our own fears about the world more deeply and also understand those of others. And perhaps, just perhaps, this is where we can find real therapeutic value in a movie like Joker. In listening deeply to each others' fears, in hearing and being heard, we will avoid one of the major aspects of Arthur Dent’s fate, part of what led him to respond to the darkness he faced by becoming Joker. In sharing our fears with each other, and listening with care and empathy, we might feel a little less alone.
William Leifer is a verified welldoing.org therapist in N2, London