Tag Archives: Mental Illness

Two Days, One Night (2014)

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You know how some movies feel so real it’s like you’re watching a documentary? Well, this is one of those films. It’s not for everybody, because it’s sllooww, and by slow I mean straight-up kitchen sink realism with virtually no frills. But what I really like about Two Days, One Night is how close it hit to home for me. I grew up with a sporadically depressed mother with very low self-esteem and I started suffering from severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder when I was five, and was put on medication for clinical depression in my early teens.

This movie understands the effects of depression on people suffering from the illness as well as their loved ones. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, an often infuriating but utterly plausible character. Sandra has just been fired from her job at the factory and prepares to sink back into the abyss of depression, taking long afternoon naps and gobbling Xanax like a hardcore druggie.

Sandra is depressed because without her job to sustain her, she will have have nothing to distract her from hopeless sadness and she will be on the dole, but mostly because the majority of her co-workers voted against her in favor of a substantial raise. Shortly after her lay-off, it comes to light that the foreman at the factory, Jean-Marc (Oliver Gourmet,) most likely intimidated the other workers into screwing Sandra over. Now, she has two days to convince the employees to give up their raise so she can return to her job at the company.

Sandra has a devoted husband (Fabrizio Rongione) and two beautiful kids (Pili Groine and Simon Caudry, ) but she is deeply unhappy and endlessly self-defeating. She also undermines her husband’s support at every turn. Even  more concerning than her depression and suicidality is her casual abuse of prescription medication. Both her misuse of drugs and her unhappiness is the proverbial elephant in the room. We can tell immediately something is not right in this household, her husband Manu comes home from work and runs upstairs when she doesn’t immediately respond to his shouted greetings as if her half-expects to find her hanging from the ceiling.

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Marion Cotillard owns this role. She superbly portrays the exhaustion and resignation of being clinically depressed, when everything, well… sucks, and nothing is good enough or fulfilling enough to make you laugh or even smile. The plot of this film is absurdly simple. but Cotillard and every other performance across the board makes it feel incredibly real. Sandra will piss you the fuck off half the time (even, or maybe even especially, if you see some of yourself in her) but you can feel her anguish like a flame burning the back of your hand.

Withholding spoilers, I was really surprised and pleased at how this movie ended. It’s not a conclusion you see coming but when the credits roll you realize it was the perfect way to wrap up the film. Thinking back on the plight of Sandra’s co-workers, I honestly don’t know what I would do if someone gave me that ultimatum on whether to keep a kind but slightly ineffectual co-worker on the team or earn a substantial raise. I would like to think I would pull through for Sandra, but then again who knows?

It wasn’t like these people were living in exorbitant wealth. They had kids to put through college, rooms to paint and renovate, bills to pay and food to put on the table. It’s hard to judge them, but at the same time, it’s hard not to, especially when you see how vulnerable Sandra is and how much she needs to keep her job. That’s the great thing about this movie; it doesn’t judge. The majority of these people aren’t sneering, bullying fat cats sitting on top of a massive fortune; they’re struggling to get by and support their blue collar families. In fact, they’re hardly mean at all, with the the marked exception of an older co-worker’s teenaged son, who’s a piece of work, and Jean-Marc, who’s just a total dick. But that’s realistic too. Not every one can be convivial and nice, just like not everybody is the equivalent of the high school bully who pantses you during gym.

Although this movie doesn’t have a whole lot of rewatch value in my opinion, it’s definitely worth watching once if you like kitchen sink realism and nuanced drama. Some people might be frustrated with the lack of empowerment of Cotillard’s character, but not every woman can be a superheroine. Sometimes, it’s enough just to survive. Again, Two Days, One Night is not a movie for everyone, but Cotillard’s performance is a genuine revelation, and even significant among the barrage of great performances we’ve seen lately, and are likely to see again.

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Monster (2003)

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Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) always knew she’d be famous for something. Who knew that her claim to fame would be as America’s first female serial killer? Life pisses all over Aileen, she’s a sexual abuse victim from a crappy home and a crappy family who turns tricks as a cheap roadside whore for a living. About as white trash as it is possible to get, Wuornos is played by Theron with prosthetic teeth and excess flab in a Academy Award-winning performance born of pure grit.

Monster is a rather eerie and disturbing movie that forces you to sympathize to some extent with a beastly human being with little to no compassion for her victims. Monsters are made, not born. I really believe that 99.9% percent of the time, that’s the case. A woman of limited resources, low intelligence, and poor self-control, Aileen’s first murder is self-defense; shooting a sexually abusive john who tries to rape her. When she gets a taste of that power, though, she embraces the life of a killer.

Aileen has a girlfriend named Selby (Christina Ricci,) a pixyish young lesbian with a crooked smile and an easy way about her. Maybe Aileen is gay. Or maybe she’s just sick of men treating her like shit. Aileen’s only friend is Thomas (Bruce Dern,) a homeless war vet who offers her half a sandwich and doesn’t ask anything in return. This is Aileen’s life. It’s not pretty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a side of America that doesn’t exist. Selby wants to be treated like a princess, and Aileen offers that in the form of murdered johns’ money. Selby doesn’t know, or pretends not to know, about Aileen’s murderous nighttime habits. Aileen wants to quit the life, but every opportunity seems to lead to a dead end for this dim, volatile nut bag of a woman.

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The first thirty minutes or so are oddly touching, a mix of hopeful and even unexpectedly sweet emotions that make the film’s plunge into the abyss of murder and misery all the more jarring. We get to see the halting baby steps in a love affair, one that is skewed but still real and heartwrenching.Theron looks like shit but this lends her some credibility as an ‘ordinary,’ ‘blue-collar’ person. She looks like one of those dodgy types lurking outside of Wal-Mart with a cigarette and a tattoo, and she sells it, too. Christina Ricci also impresses with a deft mix of vulnerability and manipulation. In the end, we don’t know which one is a more fucked-up or unlikable person; and yet we can’t dismiss them entirely. We go on a trip into utter desolation and horror with them, and we cannot hate them as much as we want to; and probably should, their descent into hell seems all too plausible.

As Aileen wreaks destruction on those around her, I admired the film’s refusal to justify or condemn, Aileen’s such a sad little creature that her descent into psychopathy doesn’t shock us as much as it probably should. This is the kind of woman we ignore. This is the kind of woman we avert her eyes from. This is the kind of woman we don’t notice until she turns up on headlines all over the country and we shake our heads in disgust and say, there are some crazy people in this world. We can’t understand Aileen unless we’ve been in her situation, but at the same time, we can’t justify her actions, especially her murder of the particularly unfortunate final victim (Scott Wilson.) This is the kind of movie you view as an outsider, and then you thank God you’re just that.

This movie doesn’t paint a pretty picture of men, women, or society in general, it attempts less to draw a social or moral conclusion and more just to paint a character portrait of some very screwed up people; a woman ugly inside and out, and her manipulative enabler/lover. When Aileen tries to get a job, we see a woman of low morality and intelligence getting by the best way she can. You can’t spin crap into gold, but at the same time, you see a little of the girl who couldn’t do anything right in this broken woman. She wanted to be a star. She got her name out to the press in the end, but not in the way she expected. As Aileen herself says, Life’s funny. Basically, if you like dark psychological character studies starring characters with severe mental illnesses/ personality disorders, this is the movie for you. If you don’t like the idea of a disturbing movie about a sexually abused hooker waxing her johns, you’ve been warned. There’s plenty of crazy to go around here though, for fans of intense character-driven storytelling and abnormal psychology.

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The Ward (2010)

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I’ll admit, I kind of went out on a limb with this one. I had seen the theatrical trailer quite some time ago, and it didn’t look like my type of movie, which is a polite way of me saying it looked like crap-ola. But I had just seen John Carpenter’s Halloween for the umpteenth time, and I saw this on Netflix Streaming and decided to give it a whirl. How bad could it be, right?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This ain’t no Halloween, and to top off a heaping shit cake is the king of all crappy twists. Did anyone actually think this was a good idea? The plot follows Kristen (Amber Heard,) a cute blonde who burns down a farmhouse and is taken to a sinister mental institution. She says she’s perfectly rational and sane; for some odd reason the shrinks overlooking her case disagree.

Kristen goes under lock and key in North Bend Psychiatric Institution, where she meets her fellow patients,  flirty, manipulative Sarah (Danielle Panabaker,) brainy Iris (Lyndsy  Fonseca,) who is rarely seen without her handy-dandy sketchbook, contrarian Emily (Mamie Gummer,) who picks fights with just about everyone and paints her mouth clown-red in protest at group meetings, and timid, infantile Zoe (Laura-Leigh,) who talks in a wittle bitty baby voice and clutches her stuffed bunny in protection against a world she can’t quite comprehend.

Little do these disparate band of loonies know that shit’s about to go down in a big way, when the ghost of a dead patient lurks around the halls of the spooky institution. Meanwhile, creepy nurses scuttle around menacingly, and Kristen tries to convince her shrink (Jared Harris) that something, er… not human is making it’s rounds around the psych ward, which goes over about as well as a fart in church.

The drab grey color scheme and the movies utterly self-serious delivery of campy situations and lines, without a smidgen of irony or humor, should single-handedly sink this enterprise, but it would almost just barely get by as a passable movie if it weren’t for the spectacularly dreadful ‘twist’ at the end. I won’t spoil the delight of this abomination for you here in my review, but let’s just say it’s been done in other movies, and done better, many times. I’m starting to think if you don’t have a truly innovative and interesting twist, you should just forgo the damn thing and stick with a straightforward plot.

The acting here is okay (‘okay’ in that I didn’t want to scratch my eyes out, but I still I still wasn’t overly impressed ,) The main problem (besides the super-hokey twist ending) is that the movie takes itself far too seriously without delivering any real scares. It lacks a real sense of purpose and terror, yet lacks the strength to go all the way as a satire or even a comedy-horror hybrid.Being simultaneously corny and grim isn’t a good position for a fright flick to take. And we never really care that much about Kristen, as Amber Heard’s performance lacks the ferocity or the plausibility to take her beyond the realm of poorly written heroines.

I highly recommend you avoid The Ward like the plague. In attempting to kick-start his career, John Carpenter has committed the worst of moviemaking vices- he’s wasted his time, and ours. A failure on almost every concievable level, The Ward is best forgotten and moved past as a regrettable misstep in Carpenter’s career.

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The Road Within (2014)

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So, I did the unthinkable last night, I watched a remake of a foreign movie before viewing the original. The Road Within is a remake of the 2010 German film, Vincent Wants to Sea, and I’ve heard it is a very faithful adaptation. Anyway, if that is the case, I might as well cross Vincent off my itinerary. The Road Within may be an independent film, but it feels as pedestrian as they come.

Let’s cut to the chase; the real problem here isn’t the script (trite and hokey as it is,) but Dev Patel. Fucking Dev Patel, man, Robert Sheehan plays Vincent, a Tourette’s Syndrome victim with a anger management problem in this movie, and he’s quite good. He’s making a monumental effort against a weak script with his solid performance.

Following his alcoholic mother’s death, Vincent is sent to a behavioral therapy program by his cold-hearted  politician father (Robert Patrick) and so sooner has he been dropped off and virtually abandoned by pops he befriends a flirty pixyish anorexic (Zoe Kravitz) and hits the road in his therapist’s stolen car to scatter his  mother’s ashes at sea.

Of course there’s one small problem, besides that whole ‘wanted felons in a stolen car’ thing. Vincent and the Anorexic, Marie have taken Vincent’s annoying roommate, Alex (Dev Patel) with them, quite forcibly (to prevent him from narcing them out to the doctors at the facility,) and that’s where the film really falters.

Don’t watch this if you’re an Obsessive-compulsive Disorder victim like me; it will just infuriate and baffle you. Alex is a pedantic clean freak who suffers from OCD, and that’s where the filmmaker’s development of his character ends. His character more often than not provides some kind of ghastly slapstick, his eyes bulging out like a deranged Marty Feldman incarnate, jumping about comically like a spastic and screaming about ‘poo’ and ‘contamination’ whenever someone touches him.

It’s pretty much the tackiest OCD stereotype one can imagine, and I felt almost embarrassed for the actor and the filmmaker in that (a they treated a complex and serious illness this way and (b that they thought people with OCD actually act like this. While Sheehan’s part is underwritten and pretty cliche as far as depictions of Tourette’s Syndrome go (choosing to portray the uncontrollable cursing that sometimes- but not typically- goes with the illness,) his character is written with some finesse and sympathy, and the actor creates a somewhat likable protagonist with admittedly limited resources. He seems, more or less, like someone who could exist in the real world.

Contrary to this movie’s depiction of OCD, people suffering from the illness are not psychotic or retarded (we may in fact be borderline crazy, if ‘insanity’ is defined by having an unfortunate mental condition that hinders our day-to-day functioning, but I desist.) The director, Gren Wells, could just as well have hired Adam Sandler (Happy Madison productions Sandler, not Punch-Drunk Love Sandler) to play Alex and it probably would have been just as convincing a portrayal. Patel’s shtick gets old fast, and by fast I mean the minute he’s introduced into the movie.

Besides the unfortunate depiction of certain psychological conditions, the setup of The Road Within is painfully standard, with characters apparently reaching recovery from a healing road trip and lots and lots of big discussions about the trio’s illnesses effect on their lives. Robert Patrick does a good job (and actually has a touching monologue near the end) but his character is just too unbelievable, going full circle from uncaring jerk to genuinely loving dad thanks to a few short conversations with Vincent’s shrink (Kyra Sedgwick.) The transformation just isn’t plausible with you consider the father, Robert’s years of being a total asshole to his son.

It all ties into a neat tidy bundle at the end and despite some good scenes and performances, ultimately has little to say about the character’s conditions. Comedies, whether convivial or dark, about mental illness can be effective; just look at Benny & Joon, The Silver Linings Playbook, and The bizarro black comedy The Voices. The Voices was offensive as offensive can be, but it didn’t try to be anything other than a pitch black comedy. The Silver Linings Playbook performed the high wire act between being light and funny and not trivializing the characters’ illnesses. The Road Within has it’s moments, but ultimately it’s just not a substantial flick, obtaining cheap laughs from the character’s  respective maladies and telling a well-meaning yet tired story with no real surprises.

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Poetry (2010)

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Poetry‘s juxtaposition between the achingly beautiful and the unspeakable is put nakedly on display in it’s opening scene, where a group of children playing on the idyllic shores of a beautiful river spot a schoolgirl’s floating body being swept down it’s currents. We soon meet Mija (Jeong-hie Yun,) the film’s protagonist, although we are initially unsure what ties this elderly lady to the dead girl, or why.

Mija is a cheerful, down-to-earth older woman who seems to be aging with grace, treating the people around her with kindness and a singularly sweet temperament that is hard for many people diving headfirst into their twilight years to maintain.

Mija has a grandson, Jongwook (Da-Wit Lee,) an ungrateful pizza-faced pipsqueak who’s mama can’t be arsed to look after him full-time, and I am not exaggerating when I say I have not felt such dislike for a fictional character in a long time. And don’t say he’s just a kid, because I just may puke. Jongwook is sloppy, piggish, ungrateful, and rude, but that is soon revealed to be the least of his vices when it comes to light he and his friends have been gang-raping the drowned girl, his unpopular classmate, prior to her death. Turns out the poor teenager leapt to her death, presumably to escape Jongwook and his friend’s abuse.

There’s other horrible shit going on here, as if the rape and the suicide weren’t difficult enough. While coping with the realization that her grandson is a monster without an ounce of pity or remorse for what he did, Mija also copes with her disconcerting loss of words and phrases, that slip from her mind like sand through a sieve. Turns out she has Alzheimer’s, and she also loses her job caring for an old stroke-afflicted man (Hira Kim) when he tricks her into giving him Viagra and makes a pass at her, looking piteously for one last bang on his way to the cemetery.

In the wake of tragedy, Mija loses much of her patience and warmth, but she tries to keep the walls from totally closing in on her by taking a poetry-writing class. But how does one find beauty in a world filled with so much pain and ugliness? Mija suffers writer’s block and on top of that, she has to come up with a lot of money quick to help pay the dead girl’s mother not to take her case to the police. Wondering why Mija makes the effort to protect her cretin grandson? I did too, but with her daughter out of the picture, Jongwook is practically her only family, and in her own strange way, she loves him, or at least feels like she ought to make the effort to save him from a regrettable fate.

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Poetry is above all else a character study, although the premise of a struggling grandmother attempting to cope with the unfathomable resonates too. Jonh-Hie Yun is incredible in the main role. It’s a remarkably understated and subtle performance that will make your heart ache with grief as Mija suffers through other agonizing day in a life no one should have to live. Mija dresses smartly and tries to have an upbeat, sunny attitude, but with no support system she begins to crumble.

She smiles for no reason, rather than face the alternative, and laughs needlessly, and sometimes she comes off as a bit vacuous, a silly old woman dealing with things way beyond her capabilities. But she’s not weak. After all, it takes strength to get through every day in your own personal hell and trying your best to appreciate the beauty life has to offer. So event though she seems daffy, Mija understands and observes way more than she lets on.

In the scene where she finds out her son had been sexually assaulting a girl who later committed suicide, there’s no big emotional breakdown where she cries out and sinks to the floor in a sobbing heap. But you can tell by the deadened look on her face she feels it fully, in her heart, and in her gut. The boys’ fathers think she’s a silly old bird, but you can see she is feeling the gravity of the situation more than any of the men are. It honestly shocked me how caviler the fathers were about their sons raping their classmate. Haven’t these guys taught their sons better about how to treat women? But poor Mija is the one who is thought to be a little behind, a little slow perhaps. A confused old lady. There are definitely traces of sexual politics and class differences, as Mija sticks out like a sore thumb among the men for her femininity and her inability to pay her share of the money.

Poetry is beautifully filmed, and that carefully observed attention to Korea’s natural beauty- even the more Urban, gentrified areas- belies the story’s tragic elements. It’s not a Hollywood movie- it’s not glossy or routine, preferring instead to delve into an exhausted older lady’s reasons for doing things, which are not always kind or easy. Mija is capable of cruelty, and she’s the guardian of a truly dreadful grandson, but we root for her all the way. How does one deal with awful circumstances. If you’re Mija, you keep your cool, smile, and try to find beauty- however hard it is to recognize- in a world that can sometimes offer little but cruelty and nastiness.

 

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Nightingale (2014)

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“Nightingale” is essentially a one-man show; you should know going in that David Owelowo is virtually the only actor in the film so you can avoid disappointment at not seeing a story play out in a more standard fashion. I payed no notice to Owelowo before seeing this movie, despite seeing him in some previous films, but I’ll make sure to keep a close eye on him now.

In this film he plays a homosexual, delusional ex-military man named Peter Snowden. Peter Snowden has been a bit of a mama’s boy most of his life; he is desperately at odds with her while still wanting her to see him for who he is and accepting him in earnest. Unfortunately,  his Conservative Mama only sees what she wants to see; his flamboyance, his limp-wristed sensibilities, and her Christian friends aren’t doing either of them any favors.

However, when Peter is first introduced to us, his mother is no longer in the picture, having been murdered by him in a fit of rage only hours before. Peter, psychotic and dangerous, essentially offers us a long monologue in the form of his video blog, telephone calls, and his back-and-forth conversations with himself (and sometimes with his murdered mother) as he prepares for a very special dinner party. His mother’s lifeless corpse is splayed out on the floor of her room, but that doesn’t put a damper on his plans or his overall positivity.

The ‘guest’ for the dinner date is Edward, an old army friend (a very close friend, if you get my drift *wink*) and the object of Peter’s unadulterated obsession. Perhaps Edward is long dead, we think, more likely, he doesn’t want to see the crazed Peter. We soon learn that Edward is married to a woman Peter despises, Gloria, and has a couple of kids and what no doubt is a clean-cut, traditional suburban life.

You couldn’t have in less than an actor of an exceptionally high caliber running this show, and Owelowo delivers on this promise and more. He’s commanding but not showy, if that makes sense. Intense and often darkly funny (but maybe that’s just me) Owelowo keeps your eyes glued to the screen for the whole 1 hour 20 minutes of him just talking. Delusional, murderous, and spectacularly self-absorbed, Peter is not a likable character, but you do sympathize with him at some points- maybe genuine empathy, maybe abject pity, it’s hard to tell.

He callously murders his mother with little remorse, holds no regard for the feelings of those close to her, and disparagingly remarks on the developmentally disabled employees he works with as ‘retards’ (I laughed when he used this word, mostly because he resembles me at my worst, making cruel sport of people who can no more be cunning or stick up for themselves than a person in a wheelchair can get up and walk.) He seems more concerned with what fabulous gear he’s going to wear for his big date than the fate of his much-despised mother.

Even though we understand somewhat the dark nooks and crannies Peter’s  mind by the closing credits, there’s a lot about him we don’t know. Were Edward and Peter lovers, and Edward, by extension, a closeted homosexual living a lie, or is Peter just a crazed stalker? What, exactly, is Peter’s illness? (I have seen he has been deemed a victim of PTSD online, but it seems his issues are rooted much deeper in his past, and frankly, he could just as easily be an unmedicated Bipolar patient or Paranoid Schizophrenic.)

Peter is complicated. He’s camp and tormented and fantastically manipulative and he makes a mean Salmon Steak with  Walnut Sauce. he’s kind of a black Norman Bates for the iPhone generation, but Norman didn’t have this much style. Along the way, we get vague feedback on how this mother-son relationship went so desperately  wrong (from the monumental, like her rejection of his sexual identity, to the infinitesimal, like how she’d rather spend her money on frivolous things than buy him a subscription to HBO.)

There’s certain symbolism to savor in the film’s intelligent script, from Adam and Eve, Peter’s new tropical fish pets (he buys them because they’re a favorite of Edward’s, and in fact, ‘Eve’ is just Adam’s reflection staring back at him) to the masculine military haircut and demeanor Peter adopts towards the end of the movie as he contemplates suicide (trying perhaps, in his own twisted way, to please Mother one last time.)

By the end of “Nightingale,” we cannot condone Peter’s actions, but we understand his point of view a little better, and ultimately, we feel a little more complete for having known him.

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Clean, Shaven (1993)

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Writer/director Lodge Kerrigan’s Schizophrenic protagonist, Peter Winters (Peter Greene,) doesn’t say an intelligible word for the first fifteen minutes or so of “Clean, Shaven.” He seems to be in a perpetual state of great agitation, guided by voices in his head and his own determination to find his young daughter, Nicole (Jennifer McDonald.) It is clear he is in no position to care for a child, but in a sick, sad way, we want to invest in him, even as we suspect him of unspeakable atrocities.

“Clean, Shaven” is not a pretty movie. It portrays the hellscape of a psychotic break in an immediate, confrontative way that has rarely been touched upon in the world of film. Peter has a psychological obsession with removing his body hair. He cuts himself to the quick, nicks his scalp with bloody results, and at one point peels his own fingernail off before the appalled viewer.

All this is shown in agonizing close-up, as Peter embarks on a tormented journey to find his daughter, who his mother (Megan Owen) put up for adoption years before. Peter’s auditory hallucinations are brought to life in the form of jarring sound mixing. There’s nary a relaxing or cathartic  moment in “Clean, Shaven,” so determined is it to capture daily life from a madman’s perspective. In harsh contrast to a movie where every element of character and backstory is offered up under no uncertain terms, “Clean, Shaven” leaves nearly everything to subtext and the shadowy recesses of the imagination.

We see the events much in the distorted, kaleidoscopic way Peter would see them, without context or explanation. Meanwhile a less-than-savory detective (Robert Albert) is on Peter’s trail, and the manhunt leads to a ugly confrontation where no one will emerge unscathed.

“Clean, Shaven” is supposed to be an extremely accurate clinical depiction of a person suffering from a psychotic disorder. I wouldn’t know. I’m fortunate enough to not have faced a Schizophrenia diagnosis in myself or a loved one, though anxiety disorders are all too well known for me. For viewers who get subversive pleasure from watching the dark side of the human mind offered up on film, “Clean, Shaven” may prove to be a rare delight.

For what it’s worth, Peter Greene gives an unforgettable turn as the deeply disturbed Peter Winters. He slips so imperceptibly into the skin of someone suffering form a severe mental illness that he could just as well be a loon on the street, not an actor getting paid to portray the terrifying illnesses that can beset the mind. Every tic, every twitch, every seemingly misplaced whisper and mutter seems so real you could be watching a documentary about mental illness rather than a piece of fiction.

The ending leaves the viewer to puzzle out what it all meant, rather than offering easy explanations. The best way to describe the film altogether would be harrowing, but also sometimes tedious. It is hard to truly care about the characters in a movie when next to nothing is revealed about them. Take Peter’s mother, Gladys. She seems distant, even cold, and her only act of maternal concern is bullying her son into eating a sandwich she has fixed when he comes by looking for his daughter.

But was she a devoted mother at one time, before psychosis took her son from her? Does she love him, even now? There’s a distinct lack of heartfelt monologues, emotive testaments to  the character’s relationships. “Clean, Shaven” is as uncomfortably clinical as an instructional film on Schizophrenia. Lodge Kerrigan provides a lean, mean, ice-cold critique on what being psychotic might feel like; like Michael Haneke, he doesn’t exactly endear his characters to us; unlike Haneke, he doesn’t revile them either.

They are what they are, and Kerrigan doesn’t sentimentalize them or make them appear to be any more or less than than that. They’re there, and they’re hurting. Anything else that might be gleaned from their personality is strictly subtext.

“Clean, Shaven” is worth watching at least once by film fans, for it’s unflinching realism and sharp observation. It’s not for everyone; to say it is not a popcorn flick would be putting it mildly. There’s no easy answers, it fearlessly plumbs the depths of the lead’s insanity. The premise will ensnare you, but it is Greene who will haunt you for days with his wracking portrayal of psychological torment.

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Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

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Despite the huge Dennis Lehane kick I’ve been on lately, I was unsure about reading his 2003 novel ‘Shutter Island’ because I wasn’t a big fan of the Leo DiCaprio film. While I still highly question the realism of the twist ending, I’m as utterly in love with Lehane’s writing as ever, and this is a slightly different offering from him, an entertaining riff on Gothic mid-20th century pulp fiction that pulsates barely contained malice. I just wish I hadn’t watched the movie first, since nothing was as big a surprise to me as one might hope for.

Teddy Daniels, an emotionally traumatized, serious U.S. Marshall and veteran of the second World War grieving the loss of his wife Dolores in an apartment fire a few years prior, arrives at Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane searching for an escaped patient, Rachel Solando. Solando was incarcerated for the fillicide of her three children and has seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving nothing but a few puzzling hand-written codes in her wake. Teddy comes onto Shutter Island, the foreboding location of Ashcliffe Hospital by ferry with his good-humored partner, Chuck Aule.

A place that houses only society’s most dangerous and volatile inmates, eerie hints of ongoing human experimentation, a doozy of a hurricane heading their way and threatening to total the control panel and release the crazies from their cells- what could go wrong? Poor Teddy is continually haunted by visions and nightmares of the most macabre variety, spooky reminders of the wife he lost and the uncertainty surrounding her death, He’s not well… and things are going to get a whole lot worse…

Teddy is a tough cookie, but the island begins to not-so-slowly get under his skin, and soon the bereaved paranoiac begins to believe that everyone, and everything, is out to get him. There’s a ton of historical context to this novel, from flashbacks of World War II concentration camps, to Cold War-era anxiety, to the ongoing stigmatization of mental illness. However, none of these things are pedantically pushed upon the reader and the novel as a whole is a fast-paced, exhilarating read.

The setting is fascinating (especially for a self-proclaimed fan of the macabre and Gothic like me) and the characters are easy to picture in one’s head with Lehane’s adept descriptive passages. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book horror- more of a dark psychological thriller with tons of sinister build-up and uncertainty going on, as well as some extremely strange dream sequences that unsettlingly (but accurately) portray Teddy’s troubled psyche. There’s a very important message beneath all this weirdness, a commentary on the horrors that spring up from denying escalating mental illness in a loved one, an all-too-common occurrence in the recent past.

‘Shutter Island’ isn’t perfect, and it isn’t as riveting as some of Lehane’s work. As I stated at the beginning, the end twist seems so improbable that it almost ruined the movie for me. I would go so far as to say it doesn’t really make sense under close scrutiny. Dennis Lehane’s dialogue can be a bit unrealistic at times (while being utterly plausible at others,) especially when he tries to hard to make a particular point, and Teddy’s conversation with the bile-spitting, expletive-screaming warden is one such instance where a little bit of editing and subtle toning-down of the subject matter could have done wonders.

Of the three Lehane novels I’ve read (“Gone, Baby, Gone,” “Mystic River,” and this book, “Shutter Island,”) I recommend you read the one you haven’t seen the movie for first. I was kind of bummed to already see the twist for this and “Mystic River” coming, while “Gone, Baby, Gone”  was a riveting experience unmarred by already seeing the characters and the situations pictured in my head by the movie. I don’t think this is a very believable book when you examine it under a microscope (the other two are much more plausible in terms of plot,) but it’s just as exciting and entertaining as the others, plus there’s the Gothic backdrop that offers some dark spookiness to to the author’s repertoire.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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If you are among the multitude of viewers who have seen Milo Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of this novel, you probably know how this story of a fun-loving rebel who bucks the system and butts heads with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched plays out. Upon reading the Ken Kesey novel, however, one comes upon deeper dimensions within the original source material; namely, the added perspective of Chief Bromden, the physically imposing, profoundly introspective, and perpetually silent American Indian.

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the movie, an overview- Bromden is a Schizophrenic inmate in a section of a mental institution lorded over by power junkie Nurse Ratched, who rules with an iron fist. Ratched controls the ward with quiet fear-mongering, politely menacing intimidation, and calm, calculated mind games. Her rule is much like that of a totalitarian state, a metaphor the novel seems all too aware of- everything is for the wretched men’s own good, of course and initially reasonable-sounding requests wheedle and nettle at the patient’s sanity while Ratched invariably comes out on top.

Hulking half-Indian Bromden knows all about Ratched’s power plays; he’s been there longer than almost anyone. He’s seen patients come and go, have their brains fried to a crisp during extended bouts of electroshock therapy or be rendered obsolete vegetables through sadistic and unnecessary lobotomies. But Bromden, who has been playing the role of a deaf-mute for years, and thus learning the darkest secrets of the clueless patients and staff, who are none the wiser, never counted on Randle P. McMurphy.

McMurphy, an amusing ne’er-do-well, a redheaded rapscallion who takes the ward by storm, is exactly what the institution needs to bring up their spirits and make them question their docile obedience of Nurse Ratched. A hellraiser from square one, he fights Nurse Ratched’s authority every chance he can get, and although at first his mad scramble at rebellion seems arbitrary to the meek patients, his free spirited independence is infectious, and begins to creep over the whole ward.

Chief Bromden seems more like a lawn decoration of a character in the movie, lingering in the background while Jack Nicholson  as McMurphy (suitably mischievous, but definitely not redheaded) takes the center stage. In the book, he is a fascinating and vital protagonist. I’ve always liked characters that were introspective and quiet, considered to be fools and reacting mildly to the insanity around them. Bromden is always thinking, always assessing. The joy of his character is that we get to see into this silent man’s thoughts. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ deals with a multitude of themes, including the fascism, gender roles, racism, industrialization, and the woes of a life half lived, ruled by sterility and quiet timidity.

Chief Bromden is Schizophrenic, so he often seems like a bit of an unreliable narrator, prone to sporadically ranting about thick waves of fog rolling over the ward, things shrinking and growing before his eyes, and the inexhaustible evils of the ‘combine,’ or society as a well-oiled, malevolent machine. Other times he seems sharp, bright-eyed, and impossibly wise. The supporting residents of the mental faciity presented in this novel are unique and arresting without seeming improbably quirky or kitschy, always a concern in books dealing with extreme mental illness.

If there’s one thing I would point out in this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s the portrayal of minorities and particularly women. While Chief Bromden is a strong, admirable, and likable character, Nurse Ratched’s ‘black boy’ minions are total fucking assholes who speak in jiving pigeon English. McMurphy repeatedly refers to the men as ‘coons’ and although his behavior isn’t exactly condoned, it isn’t treated as unacceptable either. He even refers to Turkel , the kindest of the ‘black boys,’ as an ‘old coon’ at one point. I know, I know, Kesey’s portrayal of bigotry is historically accurate, but it’s also discomforting for a modern person to read.

The fact that the racist language doesn’t get chided or sternly corrected by the author or any of the characters throughout the book is probably part of the reason it was banned and challenged multiple times since it’s publication. And censorship isn’t right. This book has many good qualities that overshadow it’s racially sensitive content. Many parents don’t like books that don’t spoonfeed their kids political correctness and pat moral lessons. My main issue was with the women in the book. The only remotely redeemable female characters were prostitutes for Chrissakes,come to relieve our poor stuttering Billy Bibbitt of his virginity. Ken Kesey seems to have some rather barbed things to say about women’s lib and us ladies in general beneath his story of the epic struggle between a gargantuan she-bitch and a rabble of cowed, frightened patients.

But never mind. Good writing is good writing, and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ got it. Often lyrical, sometimes beautiful, the book observes our complacency as a society as well as our habit of overlooking life’s outcasts. Powerlessness is a continuous theme- the black aides, given shitty jobs and generally crapped on by society, torment the patients, while Nurse Ratched bullies them all into quiet submission. Ironically, many of the patients are here by choice. If men would choose this hell, what awaits them in the outside world? What horrors have they escaped in their home lives, their jobs and their families? Anyone whose seen the film adaptation know that things don’t end well here. But the book is a worthy read even for those who already know the film’s story.

Mommy (2014)

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“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” uttered by the titular killer Norman Bates in “Psycho,” remains one of the most iconic lines of all time. But can a boy’s best friend also be his worst enemy? Can the love between a mother and son become so tangled, so deeply dependent that their bond becomes detrimental to them both? In Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy,” loud-mouthed white-trash widow Diane Despres (Anne Dorval) becomes the sole caretaker of her mentally ill fourteen-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Oliver Pilon) when the troubled youngster is released from an institution for disturbed children.

Steve is, simply put, out of control, and we witness his whacked-out rages first-hand almost immediately. His mother glibly enables his psychotic behavior to the point of almost encouraging it, and there is an incestuous subtext between the two that several times ceases to be subtext at all (such as the scene where the lad puts on eyeliner, turns up his tunes and gropes his mother’s breasts in front of a curious onlooker.)

Steve and Diane get a new lease on life when a timid woman (Suzanne Clement) with a bit of a stuttering problem comes into their lives, bringing help and healing- if only temporarily. Things are complicated by a lawsuit based on the damaging effects of a fire the boy started in the institution. Suzanne adds some degree of stability to a home rife with dysfunction and violence- but can people this damaged be healed?

“Mommy” is elevated above an okay family-values-gone-awry/oedipal complex movie by the three outstanding lead performances. Anne Dorval is magnificent in an acting job that will enrage you into wanting to slap her smug face and then break your heart. Antoine-Oliver Pilon is terrifying as a volatile teen whose mood vacillates on the turn of a dime, and Suzanne Clement provides steady support as a character who is under reactionary and strange at best, totally underwritten at worse.

Indeed, the stammering Kyla doesn’t seem to have any reaction whatsoever to the destructive love that Steve and Diane share; she is just there to help. This lack of judgment should be inspiring but instead seems to have come directly out of the twilight zone. How long could you handle Steve’s insane antics without cracking? The only moment where Kyla hints at deeper levels of trauma is her attack on the jeering Steve; the rest of the time she’s pretty fucking caviler about a family dynamic that would leave most running for the hills.

Unfortunately, the worst thing about this movie is the 1:1 aspect ratio (a perfect square,) which is jarring and distracting and takes away attention from an effective film. The filmmaker, Dolan insisted that it was more ‘intimate’ this way, but I suspect most viewers are so used to the majority of or all the screen being filled up that this is merely distraction.

Despite a lack a likable characters, “Mommy” is compelling (mostly due to its stellar acting) and even grueling. Of course it can not portray in it’s entirety the horror of caring for a severely emotionally disturbed kid, but it provides a honest (if not exactly hopeful) look at when love is not enough to sustain parent and child. The film itself is a dark, heart wrenching ride (portraying the depths of dysfunction between a deeply damaged woman and her disturbed son,) but Anne Dorval particularly deserves all the awards she gets. Freud would be pleased.

Note- The bright-light film critic Xan Brooks referred to “Mommy” as a ‘boisterous Oedipal Comedy.’ What. the. Fuck. Did we watch the same movie? This film was grim and depressing from beginning to end. Very little ‘comedy’ to it other than bemused mortification.

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