Movies · TV

The Past and Future of Mental Illness on Screen

By  · Published on July 29th, 2016

The various ways mental health is used as a foil for plot.

John Hinckley Jr. – the man infamous for an assassination attempt on President Reagan in a delusional effort to impress Jodie Foster of whom he became infatuated with after watching the film Taxi Driver — is set to be released in the upcoming week, ending his 35 years of institutionalization in government psychiatric hospitals. Hinckley’s verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity in 1981 created a public outcry which led to vast law changes at the state and federal level in the ensuing years. While it’s a common movie and TV trope, the insanity plea was not used very often, nor was it a very successful tactic, before Hinckley’s acquittal, and it certainly hasn’t been since with all the restrictions and exclusions of testimonies from psychologists or psychiatrists as to the definitive state of the sanity of a defendant. It’s certainly not difficult to understand how a violent person with mental problems like Hinckley could take inspiration from a film like Taxi Driver. De Niro’s Travis Bickle was obviously unhinged, and he did not play the character as a hero. Except, you know, Bickle ultimately just killed bad people and ended up saving Foster’s Iris’s life, allowing her to end her prostituting ways and to go back home and start school again. What a happy ending! Thanks crazy person!

Mental health as a plot device seems to be a hot topic right now, as FX’s new Marvel series Legion had its first trailer released, which you can watch here. Dan Stevens plays the titular mutant who is having, to put it lightly, problems and thinks he might be mentally ill. (They actually said mutant, and not something like enhanced person, so I imagine the X-Men universe will be involved. Geez, I just wish Disney and Fox would get their shit together, similar to Disney and Sony with Spiderman, so I can see some Wolverine/Hulk crossover action!) It certainly looks as if he doesn’t trust his own mind, and there are several scenes where he’s speaking with a therapist – or at least, a concerned, authoritative figure – of some kind. In a world where telepathy and mind control exist, I imagine it would be a great undertaking to figure out whether someone is having delusions of battling giant space demons in alternate dimensions or whether this someone is actually, literally battling giant space demons in alternate dimensions.

In a semi-related way, another mental disorder as a story contrivance was introduced, as M. Night Shyamalan’s Split had its first trailer released as well, which you can watch here. James McAvoy is suffering from a pretty severe case of personality disorder with a mix of Shyamalan-isms of fantasy and (probably) twist type reveals. You know Split is going to be beautifully shot and will at least be interesting in its absurdity, but I think it’s safe to assume that this movie will not explore the intricacies and nuances of living with a mental condition in a deft, realistic manner. And do I even want it to? I certainly enjoy unconditional violence in my movies.

Does Hollywood do a poor job representing the mentally ill, thus stigmatizing those afflicted, or am I just bad at picking examples and this is an unfortunate week for such themes in the wake of Hinckley’s polarizing release? I don’t know, but I believe I’ve narrowed down the various ways mental health is presented on screen:

The Serious Portrayal Type

Mental Disorders Most Likely Associated: Schizophrenia, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, depression

Examples: Leaving Las Vegas, Driving Miss Daisy, Ordinary People, Still Alice, Rain Man

Prime Example: A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind shows the audience the struggles of living with an illness where you can’t even trust your own thoughts or visions. Hollywood likes to wrap this trope around geniuses, because their brain is so big and smart that it can’t even handle all the bigness and smartness. For the most part, these portrayals treat the subject matter respectfully, while taking artistic licenses with the realism. But that’s okay. A movie is supposed to be escapism fantasy where we hopefully garner some emotional truth that can enrich our daily lives. This is Hollywood trying to be empathetic.

The Loveable Oddball Character

Mental Disorders Most Likely Associated: Schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, histrionic personality disorder

Examples: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What About Bob?, Little Miss Sunshine, Me, Myself & Irene, Silver Linings Playbook

Prime Example: K-PAX

Kevin Spacey in K-PAX thinks he’s an alien from a planet called K-PAX and makes all the other sick people believe him through charisma and not understanding how to eat fruit correctly. The movie maintains an ambiguity on whether or not he’s actually suffering from delusions, and this is why K-PAX is in this category and not the one above. Hollywood on these types doesn’t necessarily trivialize mental illness, but it loves to play some of these issues up for laughs. More often than not in these movies, love from family and friends was all that was needed for them to not be sick anymore. Yay!

The Violent Psychopath Thriller

Mental Disorders Most Likely Associated: Schizophrenia, pedophilia, insomnia, violent psychosis, personality disorders.

Examples: Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers, Se7en, Gone Girl, Nightcrawler (literally like a thousand more)

Prime Example: The Silence of the Lambs

Anthony Hopkins loved killing in The Silence of the Lambs, and dammit, I loved watching him do it. Shout-out to Anthony Heald and great weasel character actors everywhere. Heald played the pompous jailer of Hannibal Lector and he played it perfectly, if perfectly meant we were supposed to hate him and actively root for Hannibal to break free and eat his face. You may not always be rooting for those with violent mental disorders in these types of movies, but you are certainly in awe of their malevolence. This is usually a troublesome category for Hollywood, because it too often depicts good versus evil instead of really sick person needs help.

The “He/She was right all along” or Not Actually Crazy Narrative

Mental Disorders Most Likely Associated: None, because society was wrong!

Examples: Stranger Things, 12 Monkeys, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, all horror films where no one believes there’s a monster on the loose

Prime Example: Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Sarah Connor was so obviously right and not crazy when talking about a time traveling robot that was sent to kill her and her unborn son who was fathered by a time traveling soldier fighting for the humans in the same era as the time traveling robot. Duh! Stupid doctors and healthcare workers in the hospital she was so wrongfully detained, how could you be so blind? James Cameron does a fantastic job of depicting them as clueless assholes/molesters so that the audience can feel intelligent (we know the truth and that DOCTOR doesn’t!) and justified in their subsequent beatings/murderings. This type always has the viewer shaking their head at the ignorance of those not in the know. It’s satisfying, but rubbish. Shit like this don’t exist in the real world.

You could probably argue that there’s a group for a “it was all in their head” type mental health movie, but they’re either shown to be extremely violent (American Psycho), or they’re more serious in their portrayal (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Also, Darren Aronofsky’s whole filmography could be it’s own category. Just try to grasp that the more violent, unrealistic films usually make more money and are seen by more people. And not everyone with a disease gets cured by love and love alone. Let’s not let that tarnish the empathy for those who are actually afflicted and the fact that they need help more than they need to be shunned.