Here's The Prescription: 15 Movies About Mental Illness

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 20, 2012 2:29 PM
7 Comments
  • |

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.
Features
  • |

More: Features, The Silver Linings Playbook

You might also like:
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

7 Comments

  • sassy | April 12, 2014 11:32 PMReply

    girl, interrupted!

  • snarky | April 12, 2014 11:54 PM

    booo... terrible and overrated

  • Jordan Hoffman | November 21, 2012 3:44 PMReply

    Quality list. Some very creative choices in here (Harvey!) so much so that I'm hesitant to whine about leaving off Ordinary People or David and Lisa? ;)

  • James | April 12, 2014 5:27 PM

    Ordinary People should be at the top of the list!

  • Alison | November 21, 2012 8:52 AMReply

    great list of films. Bookmarkred

  • jingmei | November 21, 2012 2:19 AMReply

    Fucking awesome stuff. You guys rock.

  • Tom | November 21, 2012 2:00 AMReply

    Interiors is unfairly underrated in Allen's catalogue. Give it another go.

Email Updates