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C. Thomas Howell,
Lou Diamond Phillips
A handsome and successful young man's life begins to unravel when he develops an acute sense of paranoia. Things escalate when Jackson is convinced that a tv ad holds sinister messages aimed at him. Is Jackson losing his mind, or are the threats real?
There have been a multitude of movies that have looked at mental illness, from inside and out, but I don't know of any that has romanticized schizophrenia less than this one.
No colorful Blanche Dubois here, with her tag lines like, "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers." No stunningly gorgeous Catherine Deneuve disintegrating along with the rabbit carcasses in her apartment. No appealingly misunderstood Janet Margolin and Kear Dullea who find a way out of the maze through love. No sensational expose of the mental health system as in "The Snake Pit" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Michael Risely is not a tormented genius either, nor does he win a Nobel Prize or leave a legacy of art masterpieces, music, or writing behind. And the love and support of his girl friend, Adrienne Shelley, doesn't save him -- as it wouldn't in real life.
Risley and Shelley are two ordinary people who find their lives struck by lightning. About one percent of the population will go through an episode of schizophrenia, and the ripples spread out from them, encompassing friends and family.
Risley has an ordinary personality and looks rather ordinary, as does his fiancee. He brings her a kitten in a bag full of food and tells her not to get too attached to it because he wants to get it in the pot as soon as possible. His humor is deadpan. And this flattish quality makes it more difficult for everyone, including himself, to recognize the first appearance of paranoid delusions. At first, they're minor. Somebody seems to have rearranged the items on his desk and he warns his puzzled coworkers not to do it again because it's "adolescent." Like the rest of us "normal" folk, he has a job, although it doesn't pay very well. The delusions begin to interfere with his performance at work and he loses his job. In the course of lending him support, his fiancee loses her job as well. This is how it generally works. When you are gravely disabled, you alienate your friends and family and you lose your paycheck. Now you've got money problems on top of everything else. And one of the worst places you can do this is New York City where such secondary institutions as psychiatric services are geared to provide minimally effective, impersonal custodianship under depressingly shabby conditions.
The details of Risley's descent into madness ring depressingly true. Hospitalized, he lies in his bed at night listening to a phone ringing insistently somewhere. And the director provides us with still shots of empty corridors, institutional sinks, and vacant chair seats. Nobody's home. When he tries to walk down the darkened hallway at night, for reasons unclear even to him, he is stopped by a burly black guy (aides and orderlies are disproportionately people of color) who tells him politely but very firmly to get back to his bed.
It's a first-rate script, if you're looking for naturalism. There are weaknesses in the direction -- so many shaky shots with a hand-held camera. Images that fill the screen are too often glaring closeups, making the viewer even less comfortable than he/she needs to be. The story is strong enough as it is. Sometimes when a character is speaking we see only part of his face, a jaw with a telephone receiver in front of it, or half a head, as in a commercial for a brokerage firm. There is little in the way of music, which is okay. The amplified sound track turns the drip of a faucet into a sound filled with foreboding. The lesser roles are well written too. As is usual when someone is spotted standing on the ledge of a tall building, there are people watching from the street yelling at him to go ahead and jump. None of the principal actors deliver performances that call attention to themselves. The level of competence seems to be about the same as in a made-for-TV movie. But the narrative is so strong it carries the picture along. And actually the movie, being realistic, is pretty depressing. Nobody knows what causes schizophrenia. There is clearly some genetic loading, as twin and adoption studies have demonstrated, but there's much more to it than that, because most often if one identical twin "has it," the other does not. Some prenatal or environmental trigger? No one has identified it yet. To make matters as bad as possible, schizophrenics are so wrapped up in their own illnesses that they form no bonds with their fellow sufferers. They don't have the kind of mutual support that most minority groups, like African-Americans or women, can depend on. They're socially bankrupt. A true tragedy.
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