Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: While Ryan Reynolds wrestles with insanity (and talking pets) in The Voices, we recommend other films about mental illness.
Revolution #9 (2001)
The next time someone tries to talk to you about how A Beautiful Mind presented such an astounding portrait of mental illness, swat them away with a copy of writer-director Tim McCann’s Revolution #9. Ron Howard’s multiple-Oscar winner may have critical and commercial laurels to rest on, but compared to McCann’s sophomore effort—released almost a year after the bigger film—its sanitized, inspirational hogwash may as well be a Lifetime movie-of-the-week.
Revolution #9 is a brutal portrayal of schizophrenia, and arguably one of the more accurate depictions of the disease in American film. The story follows James Jackson (Michael Risley, never better), a journalist in Manhattan whose mental illness develops so sporadically that his loving girlfriend Kim (the late Adrienne Shelly) doesn’t realize the extent of his disease until it has taken over both of their lives. It begins small—James is convinced someone at work is screwing with him, moving around items on his desk—and the suspicions build from there. So reasonably do things escalate that for the first act, it’s easy to mistake the film for what it’s imitating: a gloss on the Hollywood conspiracy thriller. James soon becomes convinced that an ad campaign for a new perfume, Revolution #9, is actually evidence of a nefarious plot involving corporations, brainwashing, and, inevitably, himself. By the time he tracks down the director of the advertisement (Spalding Gray), James’ entry into the mental health system is a given. And thus begins the film’s real focus: the arcane, impenetrable, and broken system of treatment for people with mental illness.
While some reviews at the time focused on the generic nature of the overall conspiracy-thriller element of the film, it’s precisely that combination of all-consuming paranoia and inexplicably specific detail that makes the movie’s take on schizophrenia so sharp. The film becomes Kim’s story as well, showcasing the emotional and economic toll of the disease on anyone brave enough (or foolish enough, depending on your point of view) to try and continue to care for someone in the system. This isn’t to say it works flawlessly: There are some rough patches, and McCann’s efforts to depict the experience of schizophrenia from the perspective of someone suffering from it occasionally feel clumsy. Also, the narrative concludes on an over-the-top note, as McCann forces a definitive ending into the story, one that an otherwise resonant portrait of mental illness didn’t need. But the movie is very much worth seeing, both for the ways in which McCann shows how to keep a gripping pace even while making a depressing movie, and as a hearty antidote to the simplified and treacly representations of schizophrenia too often found in film. (Still looking at you, Ron Howard.)
Availability: Revolution #9 is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, rented from your local video store/library, or purchased from Amazon.