‘Joker’ raises issues about mental illness, Utah expert says

(Niko Tavernise | Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures) Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a would-be comic who devolves into a killer, in "Joker," based on the DC Comics character. The movie opens in theaters nationwide on Oct. 4, 2019.

When people see “Joker” at movie theaters this weekend, they might see a psycho killer, or an antihero, or a villain someday worthy of challenging Batman.

Jenn Oxborrow, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, sees something far too familiar: Someone struggling with mental illness.

“He wanted power back, he wanted control, and he wanted to get accepted,” Oxborrow said after seeing the movie, which opens nationwide on Friday. “That’s what every single dangerous person that I’ve ever worked with wants. They want acceptance and respect, and they want some sense of power and control, because they’ve been disempowered somewhere.”

The new movie — the first with a DC Comics character to get an R rating — offers an alternate origin story to “the clown prince of crime,” as Adam West’s Batman called him in the 1960s.

Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a party clown who has ambitions of being a stand-up comedian. He gets beaten up by street kids, ignored by an uncaring social-services system, and belittled by his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he lives. Arthur’s journey from anonymous doormat to infamous killer begins with a handgun and a fateful incident in a Gotham City subway.

“It’s brave that [the filmmakers] were trying to have conversations about something that’s terrifying — untreated mental illness, gun violence, the need for notoriety,” Oxborrow said.

A key underlying factor in Arthur’s spiral into mental illness, she said, is a common one: domestic violence. “He’s growing up with almost all the adverse childhood experiences that we know contribute to a greater risk [for mental illness] over a lifetime,” Oxborrow said.

In her years of working with children and young adults in the juvenile justice system, Oxborrow said, “all of them have one thing in common: They grew up with very, very significant adverse childhood experiences. … That’s not to say that everyone that experiences that is going to develop a mental illness. I hope that isn’t a takeaway from this movie.”

The idea that mental illness automatically leads to becoming a flamboyantly dressed killer is not the norm, she said.

“I hope the conversation around this film really remembers to include that people with serious mental illness are much more likely to be hurt,” Oxborrow said. “They’re not the ones hurting other people.”

The notoriety Arthur is shown craving is worrying theater operators and law enforcement across America. The Hollywood news site Deadline reported that New York police will station uniformed and plainclothes cops at theaters screening the film this weekend. The Landmark Theatres chain will bar patrons from wearing clown cosplay or masks at screenings. Many exhibitors are beefing up security, anticipating moviegoers becoming unruly after seeing depictions of mob violence.

The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain posted, and later removed, a blunt parental warning on its Facebook page. It warned of the movie’s violence and “overall bad vibes,” adding, “It’s not for kids, and they won’t like it, anyway. (There’s no Batman.)”

The release of “Joker” has reopened the debate about the real-life effects of fictional violence. A group representing family members of those killed in the 2012 mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo. — before a screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” — has sent a letter to the movie’s distributor, Warner Bros., asking the company to donate proceeds from “Joker” to groups that aid victims of gun violence.

The link between real violence and movie violence is tenuous, if it exists at all. Members of the American Psychiatric Association, in a 2017 memo, declared “there’s little scientific evidence to support the connection, and it may distract us from addressing those issues that we know contribute to real-world violence.”

Not that storytellers are off the hook, Oxborrow said.

“Society has a role in this, in trying to make a point that bullying and psychological abuse and social injustice continues to marginalize people,” she said. “When we’re putting people down for entertainment — because they’re marginalized already, because they’re already dealing with adverse experiences — it’s mean.”