Recently, I saw the movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Personally, I thought the filmmakers did a fantastic job. Some fans of the Batman universe might disagree, which is understandable. This was a completely original take on the iconic villain, and those looking to compare it with an action-packed super-villain movie, like Suicide Squad, may find themselves disappointed. Joker was more along the lines of a psychological thriller, with Phoenix magnificently portraying a man's descent into “madness.”
As an avid mental health awareness advocate, I find myself instinctively looking for mental health in everything. To go through all of the psychological factors in this movie would be difficult, so for the sake of space I have compiled a list of five behavioral aspects that stood out to me in this film. *SPOILER ALERT* The remainder of this post will discuss in-depth aspects of the film and its plot.
1. Dark humor
The first, and most apparent, behavioral aspect the main character of this film displays is the dark humor. Throughout the movie, Phoenix’s character reveals many of his jokes, which are all dark and morbid, what some would call disturbing. At one point, towards the end, we see him joke about killing himself on the nightly talk show.
As the movie progresses, and his mental health issues become more apparent, it is clear to see that our protagonist is dealing with lifelong depression among his roster of illnesses. There's a fantastic podcast that I enjoy called The Hilarious World of Depression, and it hosts stand-up and film comedians discussing their own struggles with mental illness, namely depression. It might surprise many people to know that this is an issue that a good portion of comedians deal with. In an article on CNN entitled, “The Sad Clown: The Deep Emotions Behind Stand-up Comedy,” it's stated, “It's unclear how many comedians struggle with mental challenges such as depression, but many of the most familiar names have talked and joked about the issue: Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Stephen Fry, Spike Jones, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres. It's no accident that the Laugh Factory in Hollywood has an in-house psychologist.”
Artists in general create things that reflect their own perspective of the world. It's why many traditional hip hop artists talk about violence and financial distress, and many traditional country artists talk about tractors and farming; we are finding ways to demonstrate our inner minds in an outward way. So, it would stand to reason that someone dealing with chronic depression would incorporate that into their art, since that is the lens in which they see the world.
Throughout the film, we see Phoenix’s character dancing seemingly randomly. If one were to focus on the mindset of the character during those particular times, it becomes clear that it's happening during moments of tension or distress. By the time we first see this behavior, his laughing tick is already addressed. We see that the laughing is also caused by stressful situations. Though the laughter appears to be uncontrollable, the film does suggest that, under the right circumstances, he has figured out a way to cope. The dancing appears to be an all-body form of mindfulness meditation.
For those who are unaware, mindfulness, as defined by Oxford Dictionary, is “A mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, [and is] used as a therapeutic technique.” It is a common practice in behavioral therapies, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Mindfulness can be achieved through the intense and purposeful concentration on a particular physical task, and is a skill that can be improved through practice in order to control one's thoughts. Though this may seem odd to some, “dancing mindfulness” is a very popular and successful activity. The Dancing Mindfulness practice officially debuted at two academic conferences during the summer of 2012: the NAADAC National Addiction Professionals Conference in Indianapolis, IN, and the Addiction Studies Institute in Columbus, OH. Since then, Dr. Jamie Marich and others have presented on the practice of dancing mindfulness at conferences throughout the United States. It's even had research studies done on the overall physical and mental wellness that it offers.
It doesn't explicitly state that this is the case with our “hero,” but it certainly fits. Based on his list of seven different medications, coupled with his relationship with the social worker, it would seem that he's likely been involved with therapy for quite some time, so it's not a stretch to believe that this is a tactic he was taught at some point.
3. Physical Ticks
An interesting aspect that I'm glad they added was his “restless leg syndrome.” Throughout the film we see Phoenix tapping his leg up and down repeatedly, seemingly uncontrollably. This is referred to as Restless Leg Syndrome, and happens most often when he's in stressful situations. According to The Mayo Clinic, Restless Leg Syndrome is characterized with “The main symptom as a nearly irresistible urge to move the legs.” It can be something that occurs through age, but it's often commonly associated with those with high levels of anxiety. The interesting thing about anxiety is that, though it can often be a solitary issue, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, it is equally often comorbid. This means that it will accompany other mental illnesses, such as depression or certain behavioral disorders.
Aside from the comorbidity with anxiety, this is likely also exacerbated by his chain-smoking. Cigarettes constrict the veins, making it harder for blood to get to the muscles. This can cause what we could call spasms in the extremities. Our main character clearly has issues when it comes to eating, which is likely a result of the uncontrollable laughter combined with the depression, resulting in a sort of eating disorder. The existing undernourishment, coupled with the physical issues caused from smoking that much, would likely only feed into the Restless Leg Syndrome.
It's maybe three quarters through the film when it's revealed that our protagonist’s love interest is a complete stranger to him. This is an interesting scenario, because it reveals the level of his delusions. According to WebMD, “Delusional disorder, previously called paranoid disorder, is a type of serious mental illness called a psychotic disorder. People who have it can’t tell what’s real from what is imagined. Delusions are the main symptom of delusional disorder. They’re unshakable beliefs in something that isn’t true or based on reality. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely unrealistic. Delusional disorder involves delusions that aren’t bizarre, having to do with situations that could happen in real life, like being followed, poisoned, deceived, conspired against, or loved from a distance. These delusions usually involve mistaken perceptions or experiences. But in reality, the situations are either not true at all or highly exaggerated.”
It's interesting that the spark of this delusion was a simple, cordial interaction on an elevator. Following this meeting, we see Phoenix’s character stalking the woman for what seems the entirety of a day. This reminds me of a fantastic program on Netflix entitled, You. In this show, we follow a man who is dangerously obsessed and unhealthily possessive of a woman who is unknown to him. Both You and Joker attempt to tastefully portray how mental illness can feel from an insider's perspective in that situation. What I like most about it is that, though both of these leading characters would be considered “bad guys,” it doesn't make them out to appear that way. It allows the viewer to see the innocence and misunderstandings of the afflicted individual. To be clear, I am not condoning the action of stalking, as I know how harmful it can be. I am advocating for the empathetic factor.
Clearly the medications are not as effective as they should be, as he is already experiencing mental distress by the start of the film. This can be for a combination of reasons. First, his traumatic brain injury is such that it causes uncontrollable physical symptoms, such as the laughter. This suggests that many of these characteristics cannot be solved with medications, because they are a part of the biological makeup of his brain. Secondly, someone who is on seven medications has likely been through the ringer when it comes to the trial and error of psych meds, so they've likely stopped and started many times. The key is that psych meds, like many other pharmaceuticals, can cause a biological tolerance to develop in the person. The more often they stop and start, the less effective the medication becomes. These two factors could easily explain why they are not working as well as they should.
Shortly after he discovers his origins, the antagonist of the film reveals that he's stopped taking his medications. We see him slowly lose control of his inhibitions. Whereas, in the beginning, he was afraid to even approach his would-be love interest, once he stops taking the medications he finds himself going into her apartment uninvited. This is a huge leap, and though it's the result of his delusion, he clearly has no compulsion against approaching her when not medicated. This is just one example of our character's drastic change, but the development into full-blown psychosis is phenomenally portrayed. The changes aren't all harmful, though. As the film nears the climax, we notice that certain things, such as his obvious nervousness and unease, begin to wane. We see him more physically relaxed, no longer exhibiting certain habits and characteristics common with anxiety. It's this feeling that often causes people to cease their medications if they miss a dose or two; it's very liberating to simply be oneself, even if that version is a menace.
I saved this one for last because it is something I'm all too familiar with. Psych meds are designed for one thing, and that is to alter the chemistry in the brain. Psychiatry is still not entirely sure why certain medications work the way they do, which is why it's often a long and arduous process to find the right ones with the correct dosages. It's often a game of trial and error, with the doctors measuring the mental and emotional effects, while weighing those against the possible physical side effects. I wrote a spoken word poem, entitled “It's Not That Simple,” about that very topic. It's a difficult process, and even when a person finds the right medications, the side effects can be extremely disruptive to daily life. This is why many people, especially when first starting out with meds, will often start and stop them multiple times.
There are obviously quite a few more behavioral and psychological aspects to this film that could be discussed here. I am not normally a fan of movies that portray mental illness in association with violence or negativity. Though some people with mental health issues can be violent, they are in the overwhelming minority in the mental health community. With that said, however, I felt that this was an amazing example of mental illness. I feel they did a fantastic job at personifying these serious issues and how difficult and detrimental they can be for the sufferer. Despite the fact that he is a villain, I was happy to see our main character “find himself” at the end, as he comes to terms with who he really is. As a general disclaimer, I do not advocate people getting off medications with symptoms this severe. With that said, however, happy endings are different for everyone. Like the Joker says at the end, “Comedy is subjective,” and so are happy endings.