Tag Archives: Brian Wilson

Mind At War: Nate’s Top Ten Films on Mental Illness

The subject of mental illness is one that’s close and important to me as I myself am one of the afflicted, and it’s impossible to ignore that the treatment of it by Hollywood, particularly in formative years, hasn’t been so apt. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff like Me, Myself & Irene or Split as entertainment but in terms of accurately representing the conditions that beset human beings, they haven’t been so hot. There are those films and filmmakers out there that strive to educate and enlighten or even just to craft an effective thriller or comedy and still stay true to real life, doing important work for the collective awareness and making terrific art/entertainment in one shot. Here are my personal top ten favourites!

10. Geoffrey Sax’s Frankie & Alice

Multiple personality disorders are popular in Hollywood but there’s a tendency to mock, sensationalize or tell a ‘real life’ story that’s later proved as fraud. This one showcases Halle Berry in a galvanizing dual performance as a go-go dancer afflicted by two very different internal identities and finding her life in splinters as a result. When a kind, compassionate psychiatrist (Stellan Skarsgard) makes it his mission to help her get back on track it becomes apparent just how challenging and horrific it must be to endure such a thing.

9. Dito Montiel’s Man Down

I heard this one sold one single theatrical ticket in the UK and didn’t fare much better here, getting squeaked into a quiet streaming release. It’s too bad because it is one haunting drama about PTSD featuring an implosive, incredibly intense performance from Shia LaBeouf as an ex marine who can’t psychologically reconcile his experience and is lost amongst his own trauma. Terrific work from Kate Mara as his wife and Gary Oldman as an army counsellor too.

8. James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted

Likely the most accessible and mainstream story on this list, Mangold’s look at a mental care facility for girls in the 60’s gets a superficial rep in some circles but I find it to be every bit the rewarding drama, ensemble piece and explorative journey that those who champion it say. Winona Ryder plays a wayward girl whose self destructive behaviour lands her there but it’s Angelina Jolie as a fellow patient diagnosed with borderline personality disorder that both anchors the film and provides it with a wildly unpredictable streak.

7. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island

This is of course a big old elaborate mystery film with a gigantic cast, many red herrings, tons of subplots and all kinds of stylistic fanfare. But if you look past all that there’s a harrowing and very realistic portrait of minds irreparably damaged, between Leo Dicaprio’s PTSD afflicted ex soldier and Michelle Williams in a haunting turn as his deeply sick wife. The film overall is a tantalizing guessing game and broadly covers the thriller board but the final act brings it right down to earth for a grounded, grim finale showcasing the brutal honesty of these illnesses and the heart wrenching tragedy they beget.

6. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as Parry, a once successful professor of medieval history who lost his mind following the death of his wife and now wanders the streets of NYC, homeless. Jeff Bridges is the radio DJ who befriends and tries to understand him and their relationship carries the film. So to does Gilliam’s knack for surreal visual storytelling, letting these fantastical creations run wild and giving us a glimpse into Parry’s damaged but fascinating mind.

5. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist

Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik hasn’t slept in a year. Guilt, extreme weight loss and delusions are just the start of his problems. This is billed as and feels like a thriller but I think that’s deliberate on director Anderson’s part to put us in the hot seat next to Trevor, to make us feel the same paranoia and delusions of persecution he does. The atmosphere here is almost suffocating, the score a muted tangle of busted nerves and Bale’s performance something just this side of unearthly. When it all comes together and we see why he is the way he is it’s deeply sad but makes a kind of terrible sense and gives the film a final stab of emotional weight.

4. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace

PTSD is only vaguely hinted at in this beautiful father daughter drama but it’s there in every frame, in every mannerism of Ben Fosters masterful performance. Him and newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie achingly display a family dynamic that has been set off balance by his illness, and the wedge it has driven both between them and between him and ever living a normal life again. This is a restrained yet heartbreaking film that gently unpacks its themes with kindness and compassion, letting a devastating final scene bring the whole point home heavily but somehow lightly in the same note.

3. David Cronenberg’s Spider

Ralph Fiennes give a focused, intense turn as the titular individual, a man released from a mental care facility and relegated to a London halfway house where all the scrambled and tumultuous memories of his past come tumbling down through the scattered web of his broken mind and into the present. Recollections of his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) are somehow shrouded from himself, by himself and as he tirelessly works to regain his sanity, he slips further away from it. Cronenberg uses shadows, dimly lit alleys and creaky, barren rooms to show how this character has been cast away from his own perception and wanders about like a lost soul.

2. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

The life and times of Beach Boys pioneer Brian Wilson are explored here, namely at two important junctures in his life. Paul Dano plays him younger, at the height of fame and success but poised on the cusp of a psychotic breakdown after stress and an unhealthy relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) reach a fever pitch. Decades later John Cusack embodies a much older Wilson, stuck under the tyrannical yoke of an evil, manipulative psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) until he meets the love of his life (Elizabeth Banks) and a chance at a fresh start along with her. The scene of Dano putting recording headphones over his ears and closing his eyes in horror as he hears voices is one of the most brutally honest and realistic depictions of auditory hallucinations you can find in film. Wilson had a rough life and the film makes that very clear but it’s never ever sensationalist or exploitive and overall has a message about love, light and working endlessly to overcome any demons or struggles thrown into your path.

1. Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine

Samuel L. Jackson gives a career best as schizophrenic former musician Romulus, a man afflicted by terrible hallucinations and delusions to the point that when he discovers a genuine murder conspiracy no one, including his police officer daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) believes him. This film is driven by a fascinating mystery narrative that takes Romulus from his cave in Central Park into the pretentious New York art world and beyond to find a killer. At heart though director Lemmons let’s it m be a serious minded exploration of what it must be like to live like that, to be constantly sabotaged by your own mind. Jackson’s brilliant performance and Lemmons effective use of surreal, mesmerizing imagery give us a compassionate, dynamic window into this man’s mind and in turn a unique, thought provoking piece of cinema.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more content!

-Nate Hill

Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

I’m not what’d you’d call a Beach Boys fanatic other than loving their most recognizable hits since I’ve listened to music, but Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy tells a story that just needs to be told and could grip anyone with its love, suffering, perseverance and genius, genius in the form of the band’s troubled but brilliant lead singer Brian Wilson, played here in a duo of encore performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack, both giving what may be the finest work of their careers. For those who are unaware (like myself before watching this), Wilson suffered a lengthy psychotic break that ran alongside a good portion of his career, brought on by many things including stress, fame and the ongoing psychological/physical abuse from his father (Bill Camp here), who did double duties as the group’s manager. Getting fully acquainted with rock bottom and finding himself alone later on in life, he was thrown from the frying pan into the fire when he went under the care of unconventional, deranged psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti, terrifying), and found himself victim not only to his own demons, but a new external one trying to take advantage of him. By chance he met kind Cadillac salesgirl Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the two seem to have fallen in love almost instantly, and it took her kindness, patience and determination to save him from almost certain death in Landry’s nefarious hands. I’m going on the assumption that what we see here in the film is as close to the true story as possible, because the events are too specific and jarring to have been made up. Early scenes show Dano as a young, vibrant Wilson, hard at work on an experimental opus project that would eventually drive somewhat of a wedge between him and his band mates. The later segments with Cusack, interspersed via meticulous editing, are both a love story and a horror story, as we witness Melinda and him fall for each other, while lecherous Landy does everything he can to keep them apart. Giamatti plays the guy full tilt crazy, a dangerously obsessed scumbag whose actions are so damaging to Wilson that you want to cave his head in with a rock. Cusack is wonderful, putting quiet soul into the work and keeping the heartbreak and hurt of his former years on a dimmer so we don’t forget, but see a new, brave soul try to rise from the ashes. If this might be their best work, it’s certainly the case for Banks, I’ve never felt more connected to a piece of her work. She’s attentive, playful, compassionate and low key brilliant as Melinda, Brian’s rock, guardian angel and eventual love of his life. There are gaps in the story, as many of the no doubt horrific times are either left to our imagination or only suggested at, but that gives this unbelievable, all too true story all the more power. It’s inspiring, to see someone go through all that heartache and strife and come out of it still kicking. It’s also one of the most intelligent and empathetic movies to address the subject of mental illness in some time, using a compassionate, frankly implemented lens to tell Brian’s story and illustrate his complicated condition. Along with the obvious inclusion of many Beach Boys hits, some mid-composition, there’s a gorgeous original score by Atticus Ross that accents the emotional scenes between Brian and Melinda perfectly. One for the biopic books, and a story worth taking the time to listen to.

-Nate Hill