JOKER — A Pastor’s Review

A Conversation Starter About Mental Health

WARNING: JOKER contains R-rated profanity, disturbing and violent scenes and a depiction of mental illness that will be unsettling for some. This is not a children’s movie. Spoilers included.

If you’re looking for a light and enjoyable time at the movies, cross JOKER off your “to see” list.

JOKER is an incredibly dark, bleak, hopeless and haunting exploration of mental health and the responsibility society and government have to love, care for and attempt to reach those struggling with these very issues.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck

Joaquin Phoenix, in yet another brilliant performance (anybody remember his take on Johnny Cash in Walk The Line or Commodus in Gladiator?), plays Arthur Fleck, a very broken man who struggles with mental illness, loneliness, depression and increasingly dark and negative thoughts. In one powerful scene, Arthur interrupts his therapist who is attempting to explain that because of funding cuts she can no longer see him. Arthur says, “You don’t listen do you? You just ask the same questions every week… How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts? … All I have are negative thoughts…”

Arthur’s words are a very real cry for help, from a man who has already started to give into the very thoughts that will ultimately lead to him becoming the sociopath and supervillain of the Batman story.

As the film begins, Arthur is somewhat childlike in his view of the world. He attempts to entertain a young child during a ride on a city bus, only to be scolded by the child’s mom. Arthur breaks into a hysterical laugh. The mother becomes obviously nervous as Arthur’s laughter continues. But he hands her a card indicating that he suffers from a condition that causes him, in moments of high anxiety, to laugh uncontrollably.

Arthur is rejected. The movie implies that this is the kind of rejection he has lived with his entire life.

He earns a living as a clown-for-hire, where he ends up being terrorized by a group of Gotham teens — ranging in age from older teens down to a small boy. Arthur’s goal is to make people smile and laugh! Society’s response is to beat him with the very sign he uses to make a living.  

More rejection. More distance. More loneliness. More humiliation…  

Can’t someone see the beautifully broken man that wants to be noticed, longs to be loved and desperately needs to know he has a purpose in this world?

When Arthur sees a woman on the subway being bullied by a group of three Wall Street elites, he again breaks into his uncontrollable laugh, which causes the three suits to take their attention away from the woman and vent their frustrations and abuse on Arthur. He is beaten without mercy. This act of violence becomes a turning point in the movie…

Ultimately, Arthur’s slide into complete mental chaos comes with the discovery of his mother’s mental illness and the abuse perpetrated upon him by his own mother and her boyfriend. His laughing condition is the result of him being beaten by his mother for crying. Arthur is broken by this revelation of trauma that his mind had protected him from for decades.

Family has failed Arthur.

Society and government have failed him.

His greatest heroes have turned out to be complete jerks. (Robert DeNiro plays television talk show host, Murray Franklin, whom Arthur has idolized. Franklin adds to Arthur’s personal pain by sharing a video on his show that completely humiliates him…)

 Arthur comes to believe that his only moments of power and control came when he finally defended himself against the kind of people who terrorized him all of his life.

 He somehow reaches a chilling viewpoint regarding his life: “I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now I realize it’s a comedy.” And with that assessment, Arthur fully transforms into JOKER and begins to unleash all the pent-up pain and anger he has carried throughout his life.

 His transformation into JOKER is brilliantly portrayed through his dance down the same set of steps that he has monotonously went up throughout the film… This descent into madness, anger, rage and a distorted view of the world will create the most memorable supervillain in the DC universe.

 While there is nothing to cheer in this moment, this sequence is beautifully filmed and choreographed. It is powerful, intense and somehow heartbreaking.

 In one of the most chilling moments of the film, JOKER looks at Murray Franklin who has brought “Arthur Fleck” on to his late night television show to continue to mock and humiliate him. Murray is unaware of the break that has occurred in Fleck’s mind. He only knows that Arthur has arrived at the studio in full “clown” make up and asks to be introduced as JOKER. As the tension in their conversation builds, JOKER wants to tell Murray another “joke.” Murray refuses to listen, but JOKER screams the “joke” anyway. His question and answer are the point of the entire movie.

JOKER screams: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I'll tell you what you get! You get what you ******* deserve!”

joker-stairs.jpg

The film haunts us with other questions, as well, “Had Arthur experienced the grace, love, kindness and care of even just one or two human beings, would he have ‘turned’ another way? Would he have become JOKER? Or, was JOKER the consequence of a narcissistic mom, failed institutions, an out-of-touch and cruel world, and a culture that is becoming more and more toxic and insane? The film makes us ask the question, “How responsible are we for each other? “ This is the same question we’ve been asking since Cain’s murder of Abel. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer seems to be, “Yes. Yes, you are.”

It’s important to note that JOKER offers no hope or help to those struggling with mental health. This is not a light movie. It does not end redemptively. But it does offer a challenge to our society and world. Will we blindly walk past those in desperate need of love, grace, or a kind and gentle gesture? Will we add to their pain by our neglect, incivility or outright cruelty? Or, will we attempt to embrace the broken, marginalized, disenfranchised and forgotten?

No one embraces Arthur. No one. His loneliness is unbearable. His rejection heartbreaking. His childhood unimaginable. His mental illness is real. The ultimate result of his broken life is JOKER, a psychopath who becomes the spark that sets Gotham on fire!

If only someone had cared…

If only someone had offered grace…

If only government, culture, society and the CHURCH would reach out and care “for the least of these”, maybe this storyline would be different? Maybe instead of a movie named, JOKER, there would be a movie named, Arthur? About a guy who struggled with mental health… Whose family of origin was more broken than we can imagine, but who somehow climbed his way out of the darkness of the chaos in his mind into the light, and began to live the purpose he described earlier in the film, “to bring laughter and joy to the world.” Unfortunately, we missed that opportunity, and the result of a broken family, a cruel world, an out-of-touch-church and a lost battle for mental health is JOKER.  

This movie was beautifully filmed. Every shot in it looks stunning. It has an “old school” and classic type feel in terms of cinematography.

The screen play is well done.

The score is haunting.

The film is incredibly acted. Joaquin and the supporting cast are excellent.

But it’s my prayer, we don’t get lost in the mythology of JOKER, and we somehow walk away with this message: “Government, society, culture and the CHURCH has a responsibility to those struggling with mental health. I, personally, also have a responsibility. We all do. May we follow in the footsteps of the one of whom it was said, “He won’t brush aside the bruised and broken. He will be gentle with the weak and feeble, until his victory releases justice.” (Matthew 12:20 TPT)

If we do this, we can change this heartbreaking storyline.

For more than a decade, I’ve addressed the subject of mental health in a variety of messages. Unfortunately, the church has often attached a stigma to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts that has created unspeakable pain and shame in the lives of people who are already suffering.  

Jesus was the exact opposite! He offered love, acceptance, grace and healing to people. In Matthew 4:24 we read this incredible description of Jesus’ heart for people suffering and struggling with mental and emotional health issues: “He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives. Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all. More and more people came, the momentum gathering...” (Matthew 4:24 The Message)

So, if you struggle with mental health, please know:

  • You’re not alone. I personally went through a 2+ year battle with severe depression. Eight to nine years later, It’s still something I occasionally struggle with and always something I’m attentive to. The Bible and history are filled with stories of people who struggled with issues like this. For instance, David, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Job, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, Marilyn Monroe, Vincent Van Gogh, Judy Garland, Heath Ledger, Sir Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Rod Steiger, Teddy Roosevelt, Robin Williams and more. Several current celebrities are very open about their continuing struggles with mental health. You are definitely not alone.

  • You matter to God! Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” Talk to God about what’s going on inside. He cares. He listens. He wants you to invite Him into your pain.

  •  You matter to people. You’re more loved than you may know… While family, friends, co-workers and total strangers may not always know what to say when you’re struggling, people do care. They genuinely want to help. Find someone you feel safe with and share your struggles and pain.

  •  Help and hope are available. Places like Birmingham Anxiety and Trauma Therapy Center and WellSpring Christian Clinic provide excellent care and services to people struggling with mental and emotional health issues. There are services available where you live! Organizations like the Suicide Prevention Hotline and online services like Talk Space and Better Help can also provide assistance as close as your smart device. Get help as soon as possible. A trained and gifted therapist can help you find your way out of the darkness of depression and mental illness into the light of health and healing.

  • Be part of the solution. When you get healthy and feel like you’re emotionally and mentally ready, be a voice for others who struggle. Proverbs 31:8  challenges us, “Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down-and-outers.”

Together, we can rewrite this story!

My Movie Score for JOKER: 3.5 out of 5 Stars