With each passing day, it feels like our world gets a little stranger. News outlets continually outdo one another for head-scratching headlines; politicians routinely rip up the fabric of law and justice, natural catastrophes ravage the globe. There is very little recourse for humans to handle this, and most of us don’t have the emotional tools necessary to deal with everything that’s going on. This will lead us to a mental health crisis in time. Historians may one day look back on this moment as a harbinger for the mental health issues of generations.
The world of filmmaking – of storytelling in general – does one thing best: it holds a mirror up to our existence. It shows us as we are, tells us, “you see? This is the life you’re living”. From the darkest moments in human history to our greatest triumphs, cinema has captured it all. And what about mental health? What about one of the greatest adversaries of our generation? Cinema has captured that too, with varied results. Here, we’ll look at some of the good, the bad, and the best depictions of mental health in cinema and decide what works and what doesn’t.
Please note this list is nowhere near comprehensive and is meant to spark a conversation about mental health in films rather than provide a highly-detailed analysis of the history of mental health in cinema.
David O Russell has arguably had a pretty hit-or-miss career. There’s The Fighter, but unfortunately, there’s also I Heart Huckabees. There’s American Hustle, but unfortunately, there’s also Accidental Love. Perhaps his most successful movie to date, though, is Silver Linings Playbook. Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as two people battling with mental illness (he with bipolar disorder, she with an unspecified, unnamed affliction) who help each other recover, facing an often indifferent world together. It’s an unusually honest take on bipolar disorder, bolstered by a very game performance from Cooper, which doesn’t shirk away from the uglier side of the disease. At one point, Cooper’s character Pat becomes so distraught over an Ernest Hemingway book he throws it out of his window. His parents are perplexed as to why this has had such an effect on him, but chalk it up to illness. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t see addressed in a typical Hollywood movie: here is something so mundane as a book which has the potential to trigger a manic episode, and parents who don’t blithely dismiss it, or play it for laughs, but rather accept that it is the result of a disorder which needs to be addressed.
Lawrence’s character Tiffany might suffer a little from not having as much focus as Pat. Still, she nonetheless has her issues, and Lawrence typically imbues Tiffany with a realism that means she is all too relatable, even without a specific diagnosis. Tiffany bounds around the room with manic energy not uncommon in those with a borderline personality disorder. In essence, she feels too much. Too much goes in, slips past the net, which would be much bigger in a neuro-typical person. Although she has very little in the way of development – essentially acting as a foil for Pat’s development arc – she is emblematic of real people with real mental illnesses.
Silver Linings Playbook does get some well-earned criticism for its oversimplified, sometimes trite coda: that an enduring friendship and deep bond can overcome the damages and difficulties of mental illness. It’s not quite as straightforward as that, and there’s a fear that those struggling with mental illness might well forgo medication or professional help in favor of a Hollywood ending. It’s unrealistic and dangerous, but a minor issue in a film that gets a lot right.
While Silver Linings Playbook is partially a comedy, and some of its difficult mental illness moments played for laughs, Black Swan, a dark, psychological thriller by Darren Aronofsky, is the opposite. It tells the story of Nina Sayers, a professional ballerina who begins a descent into a fractured psyche through the anxiety of performance and perfection. They say the line between art and madness is often blurred, and that’s the focus here: Nina, to accurately portray the image of the seductive Black Swan, must shed her sheltered, Pollyanna-esque demeanor and embrace a world she isn’t familiar or comfortable with. This leads to some genuinely shocking moments where Nina deep dives into what appears to be a psychotic break, envisioning herself inhabiting the role of the Black Swan so completely she undergoes a metamorphosis and sprouts wings and feathers.
There’s a line of reasoning that Nina has schizophrenia, but what she manifests is closer to a psychotic break. The line between reality and fantasy is completely blurred for her. Enveloped in a highly competitive world, with a pushy director and a sexually gregarious rival who would arguably suit the role better, Nina loses her sense of self completely. With that sense of self comes the world she grew up in, the arbitrary rules which have come to help define her. An aspect of the highly competitive world Nina operates within is to perform through the pain. We see the physical aspect of this in her feet, bruised and beaten through multiple performances, but the mental side of it is also there: Nina must continue her performance despite her failing mental health. It’s an eye-opening depiction of how ultra-competitiveness can instill psychosis and incur breaks from reality and isn’t afraid to show it.
Black Swan is, unsurprisingly, given its director, an overly stylized vision of mental illness. It can be argued that its depiction of Nina’s breakdown is shown with a little too much flair; indeed, it’s wise to take the more showy aspects with a large grain of salt. Mental illness doesn’t present itself quite in as straightforward a way as Nina’s hallucinations may suggest, and perhaps a little more education on what the symptoms of psychotic breakdowns are would be advised. Still, Black Swan’s attempt to address the mental strain of highly professional performance should be commended, even if it doesn’t get everything right.
Often in movies, mentally ill people are considered to be highly dangerous, chaotic characters who act as walking incendiary devices for plotting. Throw one of these guys into a narrative, and anything can happen. The audience watches with bated breath as they wait – with gleeful anticipation in some cases – for the character to unravel and the blood to start spilling. Nowhere, recently, is this made more apparent than in Todd Philip’s Joker. Throughout the history of comic book movies, the Joker has been seen as a magnet for artistic license and acting credentials. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal was heralded at the time as a star really letting go of the constraints of the rules of acting; Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his Joker amid theories that he went so deep into the character that it eventually killed him. Jared Leto sent his colleagues on the set of Suicide Squad live rats, bullets, used condoms, anal beads, and various other trinkets as a sign that he was taking this role Very Seriously indeed. It has felt less like a role and more an excuse to go wild as an actor.
Given all that, it’s no surprise Joaquin Phoenix was attracted to the role. Phoenix has built a reputation in Hollywood for uncompromising portrayals of mentally ill characters. A war veteran with PTSD in The Master; a traumatized, suicidal hitman in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here; a cripplingly anxious, depressed loner in Her – the roles stack up. He has become the go-to man for a set type of character, and he plays it well.
In the role of Arthur Fleck in Joker, he typically delivers another mesmerizing performance as an introverted loner with a medical condition who is ostracised from society and who’s mental health plummets as a result. While Joker does a good job of depicting the urgent need to make resources available to people struggling with mental health, it also enforces the damaging stereotype that mental illness equals a deranged killer. The label of ‘psychopath’ for Fleck is incredibly reductive – he is not indicative of typical psychotic behavior. Psychopathy itself – though the term is not an official disorder, but rather shorthand for antisocial personality disorder – is on a spectrum, which rums the gamut from quietly introverted and often self-harming to abrasive, high energy acts. In many cases, the one most likely to be hurt is the person suffering.
Psychopathy is also synonymous in many ways with sociopathy. They share an understanding of societal rules but a disregard for them. Psychopaths and sociopaths number among some of the highest functioning, successful people in the world. A reading of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test could provide an illuminating insight into this. While you could argue that, by this definition, Arthur Fleck could be considered a psychopath, it’s really limiting the conversation about psychopathology to do so. Alongside this, Joker’s narrative is a beacon for disenfranchised young men specifically; “what do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash” Fleck asks Robert DeNiro’s talk show host Murray Franklin seconds before he puts a bullet through his head on live TV, “you get what you f***ing deserve.” In a world where incel culture is rising, and disaffected young men carry automatic weapons into schools regularly to act out their frustrations, there’s an argument that Joker’s handling of mental illness only serves to glorify and canonize the young men who have acted out this very thing in real life.
There has quite simply never been a film like Inside Out. The discussion of mental health and how to take care of it is a complex, nuanced, and difficult one. Yet the Pixar film not only manages this but does so in an incredibly accessible way – encouraging young and old alike to take a look at their own mental health and how they process emotions. It’s hard to overstate just how subtly and effectively Inside Out manages this, without proselytizing to children, patronizing them, or boring them to the point they shut off without ever learning such a valuable lesson.
Inside Riley’s head are four emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Fear. They each jostle for control of Riley’s head, via a control panel and a screen through which we see Riley’s world. Things take a turn for the worst when Riley is forced to move state and school, placing her in an isolating situation at a crucial point in her development. Perhaps the most important message to come out of Inside Out is that happiness is not itself a sustainable condition, nor does it need to rely on the boundless enthusiasm of Joy to create it. Happiness, we learn throughout the movie, comes from the experience of contentment, which is coupled with an acceptance of those other emotions. Emodiversity – the ability to experience a range of emotions – is one of the keys to a healthy mind.
Inside Out teaches us that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, or fearful. Indeed there is much in the world now to be mad at, to be sad or afraid of. And that’s okay. We can all experience those emotions and accept them for what they are because we need them. Just as Joy could not have navigated Riley’s tempestuous life without Sadness’s ability to explain her problems to her dad, we as humans need sadness and anger and fear to understand ourselves in this world. So Inside Out achieves this incredible balance of showing us why all of those emotions are important, and at the same time provides an immensely pleasing visual stimulus, hilarious set pieces, and genuinely heartbreaking moments (the death of Bing Bong itself could act as a barometer for emotional cognizance) to make one of the most profoundly pleasing family films you’re ever likely to see.