Steven Soderbergh: Unretired. The director announced in 2013 that he was quitting because “movies don’t matter any more”. But he has continued to work steadily since – in television and, since last year, film again. The film he made before announcing his “retirement” was Side Effects, a psychological thriller exploring big pharma, that followed a young woman (Rooney Mara) detained in a psychiatric hospital against her will. His new film, Unsane, is a psychological thriller that follows a young woman (Claire Foy) detained in a psychiatric hospital against her will. It is clear, then, that Soderbergh finds mental illness and psychiatry interesting topics to explore.
He’s not alone. But how has the onscreen treatment of mental illness evolved over the years?
One of the screen characters we most associate with mental illness is Jack Nicholson’s Mac McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest who, lest we forget, was not insane, just hoping to avoid a prison sentence. Miloš Forman’s film, based on the Ken Kesey novel, was praised at the time for a sympathetic treatment of the inpatients, its “battle against the system” narrative and the more-or-less accurate portrayals of the often inhumane treatments routine at the time (lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy without muscle relaxants).
Cuckoo’s Nest was a commercial and critical success, but such a nuanced take – for its time – on the subject was rare in film. Think of the most famous madmen horror protagonists, from a murderer-voyeur who exhumes his mother (Psycho) to a serial killer who skins his victims alive to make a suit of their flesh (The Silence of the Lambs). These two films, while both masterpieces, follow the trope that people with mental illness are inherently violent and are to be avoided at all costs.
There is no shortage of onscreen depictions of mental health issues. Audiences will always want to watch things they don’t quite understand. For a long time, and perhaps still, mental illness has not been well understood. This allows producers, writers, directors and actors to run in whichever direction they see fit. As public awareness of mental health has grown, however, and celebrities have spoken out (including Side Effects star Catherine Zeta-Jones discussing her bipolar disorder), the tone, purpose and dynamic of films about mental ill health have slowly shifted.
A good example is Silver Linings Playbook, the 2012 Oscar-winning romantic comedy starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who fall in love over their shared experiences of multisyllabic antipsychotics. It’s difficult to imagine a flirtation over clozapine appealing to audiences just a short while ago, but David O Russell’s film earned more than $200m (£140m). The majority of Silver Linings Playbook was an authentic rendition of being bipolar: the ups, the downs, the meds, the therapy, the uncertainty, the social faux pas (“you say more inappropriate things than appropriate things”), the lack of violent murders committed involving exhumed mothers or skin suits.