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Here’s The Prescription: 15 Movies About Mental Illness

Here's The Prescription: 15 Movies About Mental Illness

This week sees the further expansion of David O. Russell‘s Silver Linings Playbook,” which since it premiered at TIFF (read our rave review here) has been tipped by many as one of the best films of the year, and a serious year-end awards contender. On one hand, the film, an adaptation of Matthew Quick‘s novel starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker, is a relatively conventional romantic comedy. On the other, it’s a truthful comedy-drama that tackles one of the last major cinematic taboos — mental illness — in its depiction of bipolar, OCD protagonist Pat (Cooper).

It’s not that the movies don’t take on such issues, but if they do, it tends to be as backstory for an insane serial killer villain, or as the centerpiece of an inspirational biopic (see “A Beautiful Mind,” for instance). So it’s refreshing to see Russell take a grounded, empathetic and moving approach to the lead in his new film, drawing inspiration from experiences with his own son, who suffers from similar afflictions with bipolar disorder as Pat does in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

All that said, Russell’s film isn’t the first to deal with these issues, and with the film hitting theaters tomorrow, we’ve put together a little primer for some of the more memorable takes on mental illness on screen. Some, like “Silver Linings Playbook,” are light hearted. Some are as serious as they get. But all are worth a watch, to varying degrees. Read on below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.

“An Angel At My Table” (1990)
While, Jane Campion‘s 1989’s debut “Sweetie” brought her to international attention and acclaim, further applause came with the following year’s “An Angel At My Table.”  A harrowing and yet beautiful biographical and psychological portrayal of the New Zealand poet Janet Frame, the drama, chaptered into thirds, chronicles her poverty-stricken childhood leading up to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia which lands her in a mental institution for eight electroshock treatments, and then her tentative steps towards something resembling a normal life. While three actresses play Frame at different stages of her life, the picture is anchored by a tremendous performance from underrated Australian character actress Kerry Fox (who was also in Danny Boyle‘s debut “Shallow Grave“) as the adult version of Frame. The film won several prizes at the Venice Film Festival  that year, including the Grand Special Jury Prize, and tells its story with great intensity, and yet also with calm, intimate human detail that’s compassionate, but never mawkish. Originally produced as a television miniseries, and running nearly three hours, while it can be trying for some audiences, it’s an absorbing portrait worth enveloping yourself in.

“Clean, Shaven”/”Keane” (1995)/(2004)
Amongst a group of great lost filmmakers is Lodge Kerrigan, who has remained in semi-obscurity as opposed to oblivion thanks to the cult reputation of “Clean, Shaven” and “Keane,” a startling pair of companion pieces that would showcase a major directorial talent, had anyone seen them. From the mid-nineties, the haunting “Clean, Shaven” depicts a just-released ex-con struggling with his own sanity as he flirts with the razor’s edge. Peter Greene, an underrated actor stuck playing heavies in genre pictures, is heartbreakingly broken as this mess of impulses and broken sensibilities, and Kerrigan not only gives him the major heft of screen time, with considerable close-ups and closed-perspective shots, but also takes us into his mind, utilizing several intriguing sound design decisions to foreground and background the cacophony of modern life, and how it’s unsettling this deeply unhinged man that only seems normal on the outside. “Keane,” a much smaller picture, finds Damian Lewis as a New York City vagrant spending his days walking around in the Port Authority, asking if anyone has seen his daughter. As the film slowly unspools, daringly out of chronological order, we start to realize his daughter might be long gone by now, and either he’s trying to exorcise his demons by finding some way to answer his riddles a la Leonard Shelby, or she may have never been a part of his life in the first place, and he’s trying to solve a problem that’s never been there. “Keane” is worth catching on DVD for the intriguing extra feature by producer Steven Soderbergh, who re-edited the film to take place in chronological order, creating an entirely different, riveting, if more conventional film that just re-affirms the emotional power of Kerrigan’s initial, unsettling cut. The helmer recently resurfaced, reunited with Lewis to direct a season two episode of “Homeland” — hopefully that’ll lead the way to another feature down the line. 

“The Fire Within” (1963)
As discussed last week, if the films of Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and to an extent Bernardo Bertolucci were the impetus for American comedians to mock and satirize the arty foreign films of the 1960s and 1960s, then Louis Malle’s “The Fire Within” is the ne plus ultra blueprint of the existential ennui in foreign films that left American audiences scratching their heads often and asking themselves, “wait, he’s sad, unhappy and tormented because he thinks too much?” All jokes aside, as easily as Malle’s film could be mocked, it’s a terrific picture of a fraying and suicidal mind. Maurice Ronet stars as a depressed recovering alcoholic obsessed with taking his own life.  Once he decides to do the deed — with lots of French ponderous voice over and precious Erik Satie music — Ronet spends the next 24 hours reconnecting with friends one last time perhaps in an attempt to find a reason to continue living. Also featuring an appearance by Jeanne Moreau (one of Malle’s muses), while it’s fun to be glib with this film, it’s one of Malle’s best, an unmerciful portrait of isolation, loneliness and a distressing inner turmoil that haunts and resonates.

“Harvey” (1950)
Silver Linings Playbook” is something of an exception in this sort of genre; taking a look at mental illness from a more light-hearted side of the aisle. Arguably the earliest film to chase that sort of bittersweet comedy angle was “Harvey.” The 1950 film, based on a successful stage play by Mary Chase, stars Jimmy Stewart as Elwood, a middle aged alcoholic who tells all and sundry that his best friend is an invisible pooka — a creature from Celtic mythology — that takes the form of a six-foot rabbit, the titular Harvey (billed in the credits, wittily, as being played by “Himself”). Elwood is entirely benign, but his sister (Josephine Hull) is so exasperated by the way he introduces Harvey to everyone that she tries to have him committed. But Elwood is so convincing that he starts to win over even the doctors. Director Henry Koster cannily leaves the answers to questions of whether Harvey is real or imaginary ambiguous, and one suspects the sweet and funny comedy wouldn’t work as well otherwise. It’s surprisingly compassionate in its approach too, arguing that even if Elwood is mad, he’s hardly harming anyone, so why try to change him? It also helps that Jimmy Stewart gives one of his very best performances in the lead role, by the end virtually convincing the audience (like the Oscar-winning Hull’s character) that they too can see Harvey. Some of the more fantastical elements don’t really work, and one could perhaps wish for an approach that trod a little further into the darkness. But it’s still a lovely film, and one can see why Steven Spielberg pulled the plug on his mooted Robert Downey Jr.-starring remake a few years back; it’d be a tough one to live up to.

“Interiors” (1978)
Famous for being Woody Allen‘s first straight-laced serious picture, this very Ingmar Bergman-indebted film (were those left-over wigs and did they clone Liv Ullman?) serves as the cream in between the fantastic “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” cookie, only it lacks any sort of sweetness. Featuring an ensemble of psuedo-intellectuals and would-be artists, sisters Renata and Joey (Diane Keaton and Mary Beth Hurt) are devastated when their father (E.G. Marshall) decides to take a trial separation from their mentally troubled mother Eve (Geraldine Page). Suicide attempts by the heart broken mother follow, and the siblings either complain about their responsibilities or attempt to keep their other halves in check while they nurse their parent out of her rut. However it’s only until their father returns with Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), his new bride-to-be and polar opposite of all, that the film really gets going. Pearl is inarguably the most important character — the one they look down upon as a simpleton, but for all of their philosophical and deep discussions, she’s the only one that’s happy, Allen seemingly suggesting that intellectualism goes hand-in-hand depression. Unfortunately, Allen’s script is much too on the nose, and while his form and style here are undeniably impressive, its distant behavior and lack of heart keep it from resonating at all. What we have here is a somber piece from start to finish, something that feels like a play full of one-note characters and overly pronounced themes.

“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
Generally deemed one of the finest American movies ever made, one could perhaps argue the extent to which “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is actually about mental illness. Unlike most of the films on this list, Jack Nicholson‘s Randal P. McMurphy isn’t overtly mentally ill; he’s nominally the one sane man surrounded by a group of lunatics, pretending to be crazy only in order to get away from prison, where he’s serving out a statutory rape charge (try getting away with that little bit of backstory in a studio release these days…). But as McMurphy becomes a leader to the inmates, and embroiled in a feud with head Nurse Ratched, director Milos Forman is careful to show the more unstable side of his hero too, although generally falls down on the side that it’s not so much the inmates who are crazy, it’s society, man. It’s easy to mock the anti-conformism message of the movie, and its take on some of the inmates, some of whom are used more for comic relief than anything else, can be unenlightened. But it’s important to note the context. Czech director Forman fled his homeland in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, and McMurphy’s time with the inmates, at once fiercely individualistic and highly democratic, is something of a celebration of American virtues, and a warning not to let those values be subdued or suppressed by society. And of course, Forman’s case is helped by one of Jack Nicholson’s finest performances, along with extraordinary support from Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito and more. Films have been made that are more incisive about mental illness, but there are few better films on this list.

“Persona” (1964)
Ingmar Bergman was known to have a cruel and unsparing streak within him (perhaps this was why he was married five times and sired nine children) and this is evident in parts of “Persona” his striking and haunting look at the frayed ends of sanity, and the blurring of identity. Bibi Andersson stars as Alma, a young nurse tasked with taking care of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), a theater actress who suddenly stops speaking one day during a performance. Mentally cogent and not in a catatonic state, physicians are baffled over her condition/refusal to speak, and send her to an isolated seaside cottage under Alma’s care. During their stay, Alma, enamored with the actress, shares intimate sexual experience stories with her only to later discover a letter Elisabet has written describing her as an “amusing study.” Shocked that her confidence and trust has been betrayed, with Elisabet taking a condescending tone in the letter, their once affectionate friendship quickly deteriorates into a tense war and Alma attacks her with a brutal torrent of vicious rebukes about being a poor mother and worse. Enigmatic and mysterious in its sometimes ghostly presentation, as Alma tries to help Elisabet, she eventually becomes sucked deeper into her madness and at one point, their identities appear to merge to the extent that it’s difficult to ascertain who is really who. Long regarded as one of his masterpieces, if not the piece de resistance, it’s shockingly experimental compared to his entire oeuvre and still as fresh and arresting today as it ever was. Bergman credited “Persona” as a creative breakthrough that kept him going through times of doubt as a filmmaker. “I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover,” he said. Truer words have never been said.

“The Rain People” (1969)
Francis Ford Coppola’s sixth feature-length effort “The Rain People” (or 3rd if you consider “You’re a Big Boy Now” to be the real beginning of his career) is an interesting little curio that was one of his most underseen movies until it finally hit the Warner Archive in 2009 (even then, it’s nowhere nearly as known as some of his heavy hitters). It’s also very much a product of its time — the late 1960s. Feeling trapped, and eager to start life anew, a pregnant housewife (Shirley Knight) leaves home and takes up with a hitchhiker (James Caan) who turns out to be an attractive, but brain-damaged football player/simpleton. Robert Duvall co-stars as a lonely highway patrolman that she gets involved with that only further complicates her life. While the “mental illness” theme is slightly tenuous, it’s there.  Caan’s character is essentially a developmentally-disabled child, and Knight’s character can’t cope with life and is breaking down throughout the picture. The problem with the film overall is that while it has youthful exuberance to it — Coppola is clearly under the influence of the French New Wave as it looks gorgeous, especially some of these rain soaked driving shots — its arty pretentiousness (the flash forwards and the flashbacks and the clipped cutting) and meandering search for meaning in life don’t really add up to much. Still, fans of Coppola should definitely at least see it once.

“Repulsion” (1965)
Often cited as a twisted inversion of Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho,” “Repulsion” is an uncanny little shocker and the first film in Polanski’s so-called “apartment trilogy” (the later films being “The Tenant” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” either of which could arguably qualify for this list too), which many point to as the most crucial cluster in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Here, the young, virginal Carole (played with saucer eyes and sincerity by a breathtaking Catherine Deneuve) is a Belgian immigrant who works at a London nail salon, but slowly becomes more isolated and alone, to the point of becoming unhinged. Polanski, using stark black-and-white photography a half-decade after “Psycho,” does a wonderful job of placing us in Deneuve’s psychological state, alternating calm moments with fits of paranoia, rage, fear, and outright hallucination (like the iconic sequence when the walls of her cramped apartment grow arms that grab at her). And if that doesn’t sway you, maybe the original tagline from the grabby poster will: “The nightmare world of a virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!” (Exclamation point theirs.) The film somehow found its way into the public domain dumping ground and for a while you could only see it via dodgy DVD transfers, but thankfully those Criterion folks came through and rescued it. Their presentation (also available on Blu-ray) is jaw-dropping.

“Safe” (1995)
Trapped within a hell of which there is no escape, “Safe” protagonist Carol White (Julianne Moore) could very well be considered the lead character in a horror picture. The boogeyman in “Safe” is unseen or unheard, but unlike other disease films, no one is really certain if it exists. White is diagnosed with MCS, or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which can be summed up by an allergy towards the natural world. Director Todd Haynes captures this “natural world,” seen as the San Fernando Valley 1987, as a cross between “Blue Velvet” and “True Stories,” all greens and taupes, all clothing checkered and pop-up. Of course no one can understand her sudden sickness of eighties consumerist culture — everyone else has already been assimilated, pod-like. Instead of succumbing to a world of obliviousness from those around her (particularly ineffectual husband Xander Berkeley), Carol instead finds potential salvation in a desert retreat, where she successfully isolates herself from the toxicity of modern society. The frightening prospect in “Safe” is the fear that this is one villain that can be subdued, but never truly eliminated, and with no one truly aware of the condition’s symptoms, a cure feels like an intangible notion, a wisp in the wind, a taunt towards Carol that she’ll never go back home again. The Village Voice named this film the best of the decade back in the 1990s, and it’s easy to see how the Clinton-era suffocation of values underneath materialism was a favorite of critics in that era, but because of Haynes’ timeless mastery of the form, “Safe” doesn’t at any point feel like a dated relic, still holding its power to startle, scare and disturb.

“Shine” (1996)
The link between madness and artistic ability is a familiar one in the movies, and all too often it’s suggested that writers/musicians/painters etc thrive on this instability in order to bring out the best in their talents. One of the reasons that “Shine” was so refreshing when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of 1996 is that it portrays mental illness not as the artist’s muse, but as the thing that hampers him. The film tells the story of David Helfgott (played as a child by Alex Rafalowicz, as a teen by Noah Taylor, and as an adult by Geoffrey Rush), an Australian piano prodigy trained by his abusive father (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Helfgott is clearly brilliant, and is invited to study in America, something his father refuses. He goes anyway, eventually, but is driven to mental breakdown by attempting to perform the fiendishly difficult Rachmaninoff’s 3rd. These days, “Shine” is dismissed by some with that nebulous term “Oscar bait,” but like “The King’s Speech” and “The Sessions” more recently, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar before it popped up on the festival circuit; a biopic of a classical musician no one had heard of, directed by someone no one had heard of, and starring an actor no one outside of Australian theater fans had heard of. It’s certainly true that the film creeps into convention, the link between Helfgott’s illness and his relationship with his father feeling far too simplistic, and Hicks’ approach to Helfgott sometimes coming across as a little patronizing in later stages. But it’s still an enormously satisfying and uplifting tale, thanks principally to a titanic, Oscar-winning performance from Rush that led to everything that’s followed subsequently (though his success meant that co-star Noah Taylor, who’s almost as good, was somewhat unfairly overshadowed). Not a film for the ages, certainly, but a performance that’ll never be forgotten.

“Splendor In The Grass” (1961)
As a poet once wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” More than anything else, mental illness in the movies — particularly in less complex fare — is generally connected to some kind of childhood trauma or abuse, from Batman to Hannibal Lecter. And Elia Kazan‘s “Splendor In The Grass” has no problem pointing fingers for the breakdown of Deanie (Natalie Wood) at the older generation. The script, penned by playwright William Inge, who won an Oscar for his trouble, follows Deanie and her jockish, privileged boyfriend Bud (Warren Beatty), who are just itching to do what most small town teenagers are itching to do, namely, fuck each other’s brains out. But Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) tells her daughter that “no nice girl” would have sex before marriage, while Bud’s father (Pat Hingle), wary of the influence of his promiscuous, hard-partying daughter (Barbara Loden), and not wanting to Bud to marry beneath him, encourages Bud to sow his oats elsewhere. When Deanine gets wind of this, she’s driven to madness (a situation not helped by attempted rape), just as Bud’s family lose their wealth in the Great Depression. It’s all a little bit pat, and sometimes struggles to escape the feel of an after-school special (albeit one with a message — sex is healthy, you guys! — somewhat out of step with its times). And the film rather loses its train of thought at the halfway point, becoming a more conventional thwarted love melodrama. But if nothing else, it’s worth watching for the most ludicrously attractive screen couple in history in Beatty and Wood; the former making a fine debut as a decent man too in thrall to his folks and class, the latter an Oscar-nominated firecracker, simmering with sexual frustration to the point that, when it does drive her into an institution, you’re not surprised in the least.

“Take Shelter” (2011)
Falling somewhere between paranoia and schizophrenia, Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) world is beginning to fall apart. A storm is coming, nature is turning ugly and hints of an apocalypse over horizon are at the forefront of his mind. Gas masks, a plethora of non-perishable food and most importantly, the construction of a storm shelter take priority for Curtis even as his actions fray friendships and his marriage. Jeff Nichols’ underrated psychological thriller frustrated many with its (unnerving) ending, but those looking for a logical, literal conclusion may be missing the point. “Take Shelter” is very much about how a normal fear can mutate and manifest itself into something unreal, otherworldly and terrifying. Ever worry about something that turned out to be much worse in your head than it was in reality? That’s sort of the approach “Take Shelter” is taking, but with fear of an unstable economy and unemployment  twisted in Curtis’ mind into an epic disaster of unspeakable proportions. Powerful and compelling, Curtis’ illness, is a nation’s disease.

“Through A Glass Darkly” (1961)
Famously, Ingmar Bergman‘s films were rarely a barrel of laughs, and mental illness was something he returned to a number of times, but arguably his most searing and bruising take on the subject came in 1961’s “Through A Glass Darkly,” the first in an unofficial trilogy completed by “Winter Light” and “The Silence.” A four-hander set on a single Baltic island over 24 hours, it sees young Karin (Harriet Andersson) returning to her family after being released from an asylum, after being treated for schizophrenia. The three men she’s closest to are all there; father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a novelist, her husband Martin (Max Von Sydow), a doctor, and teenage brother Minus (Lars Passgard). Karin initially seems under control, but it soon becomes apparent that her problems are far from over, as her family wrestle both with her illness, and with their own anguish. Bergman isn’t just examining schizophrenia here — though Andersson’s performance is one of the more extraordinary depictions of it in screen history, burning with authenticity — but also, appropriately for a piece about a woman who hears voices, deals with mankind’s relationship to God. It’s heady, bleak stuff, but Bergman’s humanism shines through , and some of the scenes, most notably Karin’s encounter with “God” at the conclusion, are simply unforgettable. Because of its small-scale nature some have dismissed it as minor Bergman, but in our eyes, it’s as profound and powerful as anything the director ever made.

“A Woman Under The Influence” (1974)
It’s not entirely surprising, when one watches “A Woman Under The Influence,” to learn that it started life as a stage play, written by John Cassavetes for his wife Gena Rowlands, who wanted a role that reflected the life of the modern woman. When she read it, Rowlands allegedly realized that the part would simply be too tasking to perform eight times a week, and so Cassavetes decided to immortalize it on film instead. And thank god he did, because otherwise one of the most extraordinary turns in the history of the medium would have been lost. Funded and distributed by the director himself, the film doesn’t attempt to do much more than depict the marriage between blue collar Nick (Peter Falk) and his wife Mabel (Rowlands), a loving mother who, consensus begins to develop, may have some mental problems. Cassavetes is at the peak of his game as a filmmaker, claustrophobically depicting the ever-busy, tiny family home of Mabel and Nick. But really, it’s the actors’ show, and Rowlands is titanic — flighty, vivacious and heartbreaking as her personality collapses into genuine mental anguish. She verges on being over-the-top and melodramatic in places, but there isn’t a gesture or expression that feels anything other than truthful. Falk, while less showy, is certainly her match, exasperated, loving, oppressive, and subtly indicating that Mabel might not be the only one in the marriage “under the influence.” Maybe it feels a little blasphemous to suggest, but at two-and-a-half-hours, it’s a little overlong for such an intimate drama. But nevertheless, it remains one of Cassavetes, and Rowland’s greatest achievements.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor

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