Joker the Movie; A Szaszian Interpretation

By Scott McLain

(Warning: spoilers )

Despite its very positive reception from audiences and critics – including a deafening 8-minute ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival – the film Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, has not been without its detractors. Several commentators and critics, predominantly from the English-speaking world, have called the film dangerous, irresponsible or insensitive towards people with mental illness. Such disapprovals reveal the ubiquity and centrality of the concept of mental illness itself in our society and, therefore, the corollary that mental illness should be categorized and treated like any other illness. No one seems to question this current dogma or even raise the possibility that what we call “mental illness” is rather a socio-political, legal, economic and spiritual phenomenon that is outside the field of medicine.

The controversial Hungarian-American libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) openly challenged this concept with the publication of his book The Myth of Mental Illness (affiliate link) in 1961. Szasz’s main thesis is that the term “mental illness” is a metaphor, since diseases are sensu strictissimo physical injuries of the body human, whether of its organs, its tissues or its cells. Such injuries can be measured with objective scientific evidence. However, when we refer to “the mind” or “the mental” we are referring to abstract and immaterial concepts, which, by definition, are outside the field of physical sciences. For example, you can buy or sell a house but you cannot buy or sell a home, except in metaphorical terms. By analogy, a brain is an organ that can get sick – eg Parkinson’s, epilepsy, neurosyphilis, etc. – but a mind cannot. When we use the term “mental illness” in reality we are referring either to “vital problems” and “internal and external conflicts”, which every human being knows too well, or to “extreme and socially disapproved of preferences and behaviors”.

My interpretation of Joker is Szaszian, since I interpret the acts of the eponymous protagonist as adaptive and intelligible behaviors when we take into account the gruesome tragedy that is his life story as well as his socioeconomic background. As soon as we reduce the character of the Joker to a series of neuronal synapses and chemical reactions, we dehumanize him.

The film begins by introducing us to Arthur Fleck, a lonely and very poor middle-aged man who lives in a hovel with his older mother. The Gotham City of this film could perfectly be the New York of the 70s of works by Scorcese like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. Fleck is stuck in mandatory therapy sessions with a social worker. Both the “therapist” and the “patient” understand that the real purpose of this charade is to provide Arthur with prescriptions for his seven psychiatric “medications” whose function is to stun him at their harsh reality. His mother is constantly sending letters to Thomas Wayne, CEO of Wayne Industries and his former employer, 30 years before the start of the film. She firmly believes that he will remember her and that he will provide the means necessary to bring her and Arthur out of their hardship. Throughout the film, Arthur experiences periodic bouts of involuntary laughter, a condition called “the pseudobulbar effect.” We will return to this point later.

The existential predicament that Arthur finds himself in exacerbates over time. His boss fires him because of one of his co-workers who “lends” him a revolver for his “protection.” In one of the film’s most cathartic moments, Arthur is assaulted by three young financial workers on the subway during one of his fits of laughter. Once pushed to the limit, Arthur pulls out the revolver and takes out his assailants. Although not Arthur’s intention, this murderous act serves as a catalyst for a new bloodthirsty social movement whose slogan is “eat the rich.” 

At another key moment in the film, Arthur surreptitiously opens one of the letters his mother had written to Thomas Wayne. In it, Arthur discovers that according to his mother he is actually Wayne’s illegitimate son, the result of an affair between Thomas and his mother when she was still employed by him. When Arthur confronts Wayne directly during a Wayne Industries benefit gala, Wayne explains that his mother lost her job and was confined to the Arkham Asylum asylum due to her psychological instability. To make matters worse, Wayne claims that Arthur is actually adopted. Arthur refuses to believe it, but travels to Arkham and takes over his mother’s case file and discovers that everything that Thomas Wayne told him is true.

At this crucial moment in the film we see Arthur begin to transform into the Joker, the iconic incarnation of chaotic evil. He suffocates his mother in her hospital room. He murders in cold blood his former co-worker who loaned him the firearm. On national television, he blows the brains out of a famous pushy comedian who invited him on the show only to humiliate him in public. In one of the last scenes of the film, we see Arthur posing triumphantly atop a burning police car in front of tens of thousands of devoted admirers as he paints a malevolent smile with his own blood: Arthur Fleck is dead, he has born the Joker.

From my point of view, Arthur Fleck’s actions were entirely voluntary and instrumentally rational. In fact, the director makes us see how Arthur’s perceptions begin to sharpen more as soon as his access to his “medications” is cut off.

Could it be that Arthur suffered from a disease that science has yet to identify that has overruled his total free will and forced him to murder at will? It’s an unnecessarily complex explanation: human tragedy and human conflict serve to elucidate Arthur’s motives. If we reflect on this a bit, Arthur’s behaviors make sense, at least to him. Why does Arthur kill young people on the subway? Because they humiliated and assaulted him. Why does Arthur kill his mother? For revenge, for hatred, for betrayal. Why does Arthur kill comedian Murray Franklin? He says it himself explicitly: “you just wanted to make fun of me, just like the others.”

The observant viewer will notice the care and calculation with which Arthur acts throughout the film. He shows a lot of intelligence and planning to get close to Thomas Wayne, to dodge the police in the subway, and to kill Murray Franklin, for example. When it is revealed to us that his courtship with his neighbor Sophie was a “delusion” in his imagination, we note that Sophie’s imaginary presence does not interfere with the instrumentality of Arthur’s actions. After all, a delusion is a psychiatric term to refer to a false belief. But who does not have or has not had comforting false beliefs at some point in their life? In any case, we fully understand why Arthur would want to imagine having a girlfriend.

It is telling that the actor who plays the role of Arthur Fleck, Joaquin Phoenix, rejects the label of mental illness for his character. In an interview with the newspaper Abc Phoenix he states:

Personally, I don’t see Arthur as mentally ill but as a narcissist. In his head there is an idea of ​​his place in the world and he does everything possible to achieve it [1]

I consider the greatness of Joker to be how Phillips and Phoenix make the viewer understand why the villain behaves the way he behaves, and in a beautiful, spectacular, dramatic, cathartic and uncomfortable as well as seductive way. I firmly believe that it is the great works of art, and not scientistic reductionism, that really helps us understand what at first appears to be unclear. Let’s remember, then, an unforgettable quote from the best screenwriter in history: “Although everything is madness, he does not stop observing method in what he says.” [2]



Originally published at:

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Continue reading “Thomas Szasz vs Albert Ellis: Is Mental Illness a Myth?”