What makes these 10 movies that depict mental illness so compelling?
Media has long been fascinated with mental illness. It has been depicted in almost every genre of film from horror (Shutter Island) to romantic comedy (50 First Dates). Sometimes these depictions are good and sometimes they are more than a little problematic. And we as an audience are so fascinated with mental illness. You can see it in reality television, our current debate about gun control, and of course film. These films often sensationalize what it means to have mental illness, even in cases where the films are based on true stories. They should not be viewed as accurate portrayals of mental illness. Nevertheless, we are going to explore what these films depict and how well they do it.
10. Sucker Punch (2011)
This visual feast of a film explores mental illness in a way that is truly unique among films. Babydoll is locked away in an institution in order to cover up the murder of her sister. Her stepfather is easily able to bribe an employee of the institution and the wheels are set in motion to have Babydoll lobotomized. In order to escape the harsh reality of her situation, she retreats into elaborate fantasy worlds including a steampunk World War 1, a brothel, feudal Japan, and a medieval castle complete with a fire breathing dragon, and a train armed with robotic guards. All the while we are shown the actual events that are mirroring Babydoll’s fantasy world. In the end her disassociation may be the only thing truly saving her from a life of misery. Zack Snyder uses the setting of the asylum to play out this incredible fantasy world. It is visually stunning and an incredible view if you haven’t seen it. But if you’re looking for an accurate portrayal of dissociative identity disorder, this movie may not be what you are looking for.
9. Wristcutters: A Love Story (2007)
A comedy about suicide? That seems…dark. Which is exactly what this beautiful and funny movie is. This film almost serves as an in-joke to everyone who has contemplated suicide. It takes place in the afterlife for people who have killed themselves. No, its not hell. No, it’s not heaven. It’s something else entirely. According to this film, death by suicide awards you a ticket to a world that is pretty much like the one we are in only just a little bit worse. You still have to get a job, pay rent, and be a responsible adult. Except you’re surrounded by people who are just as depressed as you are, no one can smile, and everything is just slightly gray. Of course our hero Zia also manages to fall in love with a woman who seems just a little too vibrant for their world. She keeps insisting that someone made a mistake and that she certainly didn’t commit suicide. So they go on an adventure to find the people in charge so that they can correct this mistake. Zia doesn’t quite believe her but he’s falling in love with her so he goes along with what she says. It’s a very funny and quirky movie that explores an interesting concept and really speaks to people who have lived this experience.
8. American Psycho (2000)
There are a lot of people who argue that Patrick Bateman is violently antisocial. And we definitely think this film supports the incorrect association between violence and mental illness. But we think most analyses overlook at major fact. We think these people fail to grasp the end of the film. When it turns out these were all fantasies of his. Now having fantasies about murdering people may certainly indicate that someone has antisocial personality disorder but we think there is a more interesting angle to approach this from. He is having serious issues distinguishing his intensely violent fantasy life from his real life. Obviously this is only one level that this film exists on. It is also a very radical rejection of the yuppism of the 1980s. It also takes materialism and wealth obsession to a whole new level. The violence has made this film both a huge controversy and a cult classic and it is certainly deserving of a place on this list.
7. Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan is an incredibly macabre tale about the dangers of perfectionism and distorted body image. Nina struggles with her dual role as the white swan and the black swan. This struggle is embodied with her conflict and attraction to her understudy Lily. She also struggles with sexual harassment from the director. She continues to be plagued by distressing delusions including an imagined sexual encounter with her archnemesis Lily. She also imagines she is turning into the black swan, feathers and all. Her world continues in a downward spiral as the show gets closer and closer. It is strange that so many apparently missed that Nina struggles with mental illness. She is clearly haunted by perfectionist tendencies and sexual issues. She doesn’t allow herself any kind of freedom. A fact only reinforced by her domineering mother. Its horrifying to watch unfold.
6. Donnie Darko (2001)
This one may cause some controversy for its place on our list. After all, is this a film about mental illness? Is Donnie Darko mentally ill? Or is this a fantasy film about time travel? Is it real? Or is it fake? And that’s exactly the struggle Donnie faces as the film progresses. Are his visions of time travel real? Or is he having a break from reality? Either way this is an incredibly good film that has gone on to become a cult classic. And its soundtrack is amazing. There is something about this film that people find a connection with. Maybe we are drawn in by the darkness of the film. Or perhaps it is Donnie that we cheer for. He stands up for a girl who is being bullied and tries to fight against what he sees as the horrors of the 1980s. It is also one of the only films to portray a schizophrenic person as non-violent and likable. We LIKE Donnie Darko. We want him to prove time travel can be done and win the girl.
5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
This is a classic film depicting mental illness and we could not possibly miss it on this list. It shows the brutal treatment of the mentally ill in institutional settings where humiliation, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies are all tools in the institutional arsenal used to keep patients in line. But one of the most amazing things about this film is how it truly humanizes the patients. And obviously Jack Nicholson does an incredible job in his performance. We want him to escape. And we want him to take all of these amazing and interesting men with him. But of course, that’s not really the way the story can end. But it is beautiful nonetheless. If you have never seen this film we strongly recommend you check it out. It’s a classic.
4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream may be one of the most disturbing films ever made. It isn’t terribly violent. There isn’t too much sex. It is just disturbing. It looks right into the face of what it means to be addicted to drugs. And even when we want to look away it never lets us. It destroys stereotypes about who uses and why they use. And it leaves us chilled to the very bone when we examine not only the consequences of drug use but also the consequences of our current medical model and the harsh stigma against drug use and the effect it has on addicts. But don’t worry about the glamorization of drug use. It certainly does not do that. Drug abuse is portrayed as an ugly nasty monster that takes over the lives of good people and makes them do bad things. It is probably one of the most honest views of addiction out there.
3. Prozac Nation (2001)
We would encourage anyone who has ever experienced major depression to at least check out the book that this film was made from. It really gives an interesting view on the history of depression. Because people were depressed long before antidepressants and Lizzie experiences what it means to be depressed and unable to find effective treatment. Lizzie medicates herself with sex, drugs, and other forms of escapism. She attempts to kill herself and is completely unable to cope with reality. She throws all her success and opportunities out the window. She destroys her relationship with her mother. And why? Because she’s depressed. And therapy isn’t working. And nothing seems to be working until they put her on a new medication that seems to finally ease her suffering.
2. The Hours (2002)
The Hours is a film that tells the story of three women living parallel lives. One is Virginia Woolf who is struggling with bipolar disorder while attempting to write Mrs. Dalloway. The second story concerns a despairing housewife in the 1950s who attempts to escape her unhappiness by reading Virginia Woolf, attempting suicide, and finally choosing to escape by choosing to live. Finally we are left with a woman planning a party. She is living out the life of Mrs. Dalloway and is attempting to throw a party for one of her good friends who is dying of AIDS. She puts on a smile but she seems to be empty on the inside. All three stories are tied together by mental illness and suicide. They all struggle with being their true selves while also making the people around them happy. They are all confined in narrow roles. They each ultimately must choose their own fates.
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
This is also an incredibly haunting film about mental illness. And given the recent mass shootings, it is a film that has even more meaning. It follows the story of a mother raising a young child. Their relationship starts out on a sour note when she finds herself pregnant and miserable. The two of them have conflicts even when he is a small child. He seems to take pleasure from hurting her and she finally snaps and throws him against a wall breaking his arm. We aren’t sure if we are horrified by her actions or sympathetic. This child is a monster. And it only continues to get worse as he gets older. He is seriously violent towards his little sister eventually causing her to go blind. He seems to enjoy the fact that he is ruining his mother’s life. He goes into class and shoots fellow classmates with a bow. But not before killing his little sister and his father. We are only left to wonder why he spared his mother. Does he identify with her? Does he feel that he can hurt her more by letting her live?
Honorable Mentions: Twelve Monkeys (1995), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Iron Lady (2012)