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Here's The Prescription: 15 Movies About Mental Illness

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 20, 2012 at 2:29PM

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).
8

Shine
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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

This article is related to: Features, The Silver Linings Playbook


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