Sympathy for Evil: How Todd Phillips’ Joker Succeeds at Mental Illness Portrayal

 by Jasmine Grant 

Joker in makeup dancing in the bathroom

To date, it’s fair to say that the closest we ever got to an in-depth origin story for the Joker came from Alan Moore’s award-winning 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. The failed comedian backstory is such a common attachment for this previously unnamed supervillain that it is hard to identify distinctive storylines that put it to good use and an original take. Considering how much is open to interpretation of this persona, it is inspiring how Todd Phillips’ Joker twists the title character’s background to breed the brilliant and encapsulating persona of Arthur Fleck. This is a man who is both equally as heartbreaking and twisted as his predecessors. Joker breaks all stereotypes awarded to comic-book based movies for its depth and complexity in portraying mental illness. 

We are introduced to Arthur in his phase of suffering through the mundane days of surviving in a broken society by working in abusive conditions. The grey overlay and seemingly slow-moving scenes grasp how isolated and hopeless these days seem as they blend into each other. Little clues that start out as quirky and seemingly innocent attributes quickly lead us down into the void of madness that the Joker possesses. This is what makes Joker as a film stand out among other versions including this classic antagonist. The artistic decisions in this film are thoughtfully bound to the audience’s perception to entice certain emotions. It feels almost as if we are sitting in that comedy club alongside everyone else, feeling just as awkward from the extended periods of silence and deadpan moments.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a most believable performance as Arthur and impressively displays the attributes of his mental illness. He gets all the details right, even down the choking on spit and loss of breath from laughing too hard. The authenticity of the stale and disappointing reaction to learning he has betrayed himself and made up a source of happiness in his life is daunting; the scene of him sitting on the couch was both memorable and a touching extraction of sympathy for Alfred. The commitment to this role (such as losing weight) proves Phoenix to be just as dedicated as he is talented. Previous roles as loners and psychopaths give him the perfect amount of off-color humor and neutrality necessary to make this movie work without coming off corny.

Still, Joker proved to the best of its abilities the difficult idea that humans come to a crossroads when feeling and expressing sympathy for evil people. The very first introduction to seeing Arthur fit into society includes a gruesome scene of him getting beat up by a group of teens, giving a glimpse of how far the subordination of Alfred carries through. Hearing his boss explain to him that he makes people uncomfortable and they see him as weird is a poignant moment in sharing those feelings of social rejection and estrangement. The complicit and normalizing frames of psychotic behavior in the mental hospital are harrowing in the opposing light in which it’s portrayed. Eventually, the plea for help towards his rise towards rebellion is that turning point in sensitivity. 

It makes losing one’s mind make sense. 

Maybe he has the right to go crazy. Good for him for taking back his dignity…even if it means causing chaos and killing innocents. In modern times, desensitized audiences laugh during a  murder scene with Arthur’s co-workers. This movie is cleverly devised to condition us to see violence through different lenses by the closing scene. 

Joker without make up laughing uncontrollably on the bus

This film isn’t what you might think at first glance. We don’t get to see the Joker grow into the criminal mastermind he is, but rather we see the scenario that sets him up for success in that direction. Missing core elements such as his background in chemistry leave gaping questions for comic book fans like myself. Despite the well-conceived and well-executed film itself, it’s still hard to envision a master manipulator being born out of a mentally-ill man who just got lucky enough to gain power. 

If a sequel were to ever come to fruition, an explanation to how he’ll get along without his comic-book traits will be much anticipated. I, for one, am rooting for one. 

Four stars. 

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