Mental illness is one of the great taboos in today’s society. Good mainstream portrayals of mental illness are extremely rare and tend to exaggerate the condition of the sufferer. However, there have been some great portrayals of mental illness which don’t hide away their factual and shocking nature. Here is a list of 10 great movies on mental illness.
1. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A Streetcar Named Desire is enjoyable to watch, since it is a pure piece of drama. Vivienne Leigh’s excellent performance as Blanche Dubois will leave you speechless. She is a fading beauty, an alcoholic who is a man eater and lives in a world of illusions and fantasies. While she keeps up a façade of demureness, inside she’s cracking.
Blanche runs into trouble with Stanley (played by Marlon Brando), who is her sister’s macho, brooding husband who hates her pretence and superior air towards him. On the other hand, her sister Stella is frightened by his domination of her but she’s powerfully sexually attracted to him. Two of them have a tit for tat rivalry.
2. Betty Blue (1986)
Betty, the main character in this movie, has problems. We would deem her as having Borderline Personality Disorder. This can be seen in Betty’s outbursts of extreme rage – smashing her hand through a window because she’s annoyed at Zorg, and stabbing a restaurant patron in the hand when they complain about the food. Betty shows self-destructive behavior – running away with a little boy which she knows will get her into trouble and hacking off all of her hair.
She also indulges in suicidal behavior by gouging out her own eye. Betty experiences psychosis, which is usually transient in Borderline Personality Disorder sufferers. This leads to Betty being in an irreversible state of catatonia, which is more of a plot device than something which would happen in real life.
3. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
John Nash (played by Russel Crowe) is a super genius who can bust open codes and propagate mathematics theories. Nash even finds time for a wife. But, John becomes convinced he is being chased by Soviet agents. This is a rather glamourized version of schizophrenia. We think that he and his family went through a lot of stress, annoyance and anguish than portrayed in the movie.
The end message that he learned how to cope with the illness without drugs sets a dangerous precedent for anyone wanting to stop their medication in the hope that they can cope without it, too. In our opinion, he didn’t do much significant work after his schizophrenic break, and he sired a son who is also tormented by the illness.
4. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Girl Interrupted is based on the book by Susannah Kaysen. This movie features the psychological journey of Susannah, who is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. This happened after she took an overdose of aspirin and showed of self-harm and reckless promiscuity. We found a problem with the hospital, because it looks like a girl’s summer camp.
Maybe this is because it’s a private hospital. However, we doubt that any hospital would let these girls get up to the shenanigans they do at night time. In our opinion, there would have to be psychiatric nurse around in case an emergency occurred. After all, it is not an 8-4 job. Angelina Jolie and Brittany Murphy play two main roles in this movie.
5. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1977)
Deborah (played by Kathleen Quinlan) is a young schizophrenic girl whose mind inhabits a bizarre alternate reality. She struggles to find some semblance of sanity, after being institutionalized for 3 years. This is a great movie. In our opinion, it’s probably a cash in on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the protagonist being woman rather than man.
Quinlan did a really good job in portraying a mentally disturbed young female. There are many opportunities for her to chew the scenery, but she reins herself in admirably. There is also a deviant nurse in this film, but there is always one in every ward, after all. Since it’s primarily set within the confines of an institution, it is a claustrophobic movie. The film is highly interesting to watch.
6. Family Life (1971)
This movie is directed by Ken Loach and is a highly naturalistic, almost documentary style study about Janice, a young woman who lives with her conservative parents who lead a dreary working class existence and see any attempt of the behalf of their daughter to have fun as bad behavior. When she gets pregnant, Janice’s parents force her into an abortion. When her psyche cracks, they blame Janice for deliberately trying to upset them.
However, things escalate when she meanders into psychosis. The psychiatrists and doctors are of little help, and are at times, downright insulting. With no adequate treatment and support, the last we see of Janice is her being wheeled into a symposium full of medical students as a specimen. This is a fascinating study of madness which is caused by environmental factors.
7. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
This is another great movie. It is probably the movie which people base their knowledge on mental illness the most. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won all five major Oscars and hardly anyone has a bad word to say about this movie. Randle McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) is the petty criminal who opts for an easy life in a mental hospital rather than serve out his time doing hard labor.
Randle gets into battle with Ratched, nurse who is the head of the ward. She uses boredom and humiliation to control the inmates. He tries to shake the inmates out of their complacency. He rebels until he is lobotomized and his friend Chief Bromden smothers him with a pillow, because he can’t bear to see the fight knocked out of his good friend.
8. Through A Glass Darkly (1961)
Through a Glass Darkly is a Swedish movie directed by Ingmar Bergman. In this film, Bergman produces a great portrayal of a psychotic break in a schizophrenic woman named Karin (played by Harriet Andersson). The action of this film takes place on a Swedish Island over a 24-hour period. There is Karin, her brother Minus, her husband Martin and her father David. She has just been released from hospital and Marin informs David that her disease is almost incurable.
Karin begins to crack over the 24 hours. In the middle of the night, Karin is led by a foghorn into a room in which she can hear voices behind the peeling wallpaper. Then she goes to her father for comfort. When her father leaves the room, she reads his diary in which he wrote how he finds himself having a cold and curious fascination with Karin’s illness.
9. Thin (2006)
This film is a documentary which is made for HBO about the lives of a few women tormented by eating disorders in a residential unit. The movie deals with the lives of these women in the clinic as they go through mealtimes, the official regimes and therapy, but it also portrays the women’s turbulent relationships with each other and what they get up to when no eyes are upon them. This is a movie that unless you have had an eating disorder, you aren’t really going to understand.
It is only when you’ve had an eating disorder that you understand the problems which the illness has upon them. When your weight goes below a certain level, you’re no longer capable of thinking rationally for yourself. The only thing you can think about is losing the next pound. It’s an obsession and the girls in this movie reflect this terror.
10. Revolution No 9 (2001)
This movie will show you all you need to know, if you want to know how a normal person can descend into the depths of paranoid schizophrenia. Revolution No 9 shows us how any woman or man can be affected by the disease at any time in their lives. The movie depicts a trauma of Michael Risley of going from being a normal guy with a good job, a girlfriend and generally he has his life together. Michael begins to get paranoid.
His co-workers are messing around with his desk and this line of thinking carries on until he begins seeing subliminal messages on TV and comes to believe that the television advert is plotting his downfall. Extremely realistic in recreating the things which the mentally ill are subjected to – total fear, horrible hospitalization with demeaning treatment and uncaring staff, bewilderment and alienation from loved ones – Revolution No 9 is probably the best portrayal of schizophrenia which we have seen so far.