Genre-fying Mental Illness [II]: the Disenfranchised, Disillusioned Lone Wolf


The first part of this study was an attempt to advance the notion of a “Mental Illness” film (MIF) genre, especially relating to how popular culture treats troubled women — more on that in a second. 

Through the study of certain standout picks (Rachel Getting Married, The Hours, The Virgin Suicides, Black Swan, and Girl, Interrupted), I realized that genre-fying movies centered on such a complex and delicate issue could be as beneficial as it could be harmful. 

On the one hand, prompting the difficult conversation at large about mental health and suicide will never not be beneficial. For too long, it has been tainted with taboo — when it’s been had at all.

On the other hand, when it is done in a way that is flippant and/or grossly formulaic, these films can, on the contrary, inform us at large on ideas that are misconstrued. Films, after all, are either the products of the way we think abotu certain issues, or they are what influences our attitudes about said issues.

Beyond the general way they lump overarching ideas together about mental illness sufferers and survivors, what is most interesting is the way these films play into traditional, outdated notions of gender roles; thus, the manifestation of the mental illness in question takes on a different form depending on whether it’s a man or a woman being scrutinized.

In other words: when in distress, women tend to hurt themselves, while men hurt others.

This of course is a pop culture generalization that ignores the much more subtle realities. Yes, a lot of large-scale catastrophes have historically been linked to men, while women have been known to self-harm when depressed, but to look at only that would be incredibly reductive. Women can be just as vicious, while men are not excluded from hurting themselves.

Part I of this MIF genre study was about the damaging stereotypes tacked onto women: according to the chosen films, they are fragile and delicate beings, who are unable to take care of themselves, at once defying the conventions of what a poised and dignified woman should be, and reinforcing it, all the same. These contrasting tendencies are as insulting as they are baffling, simultaneously leaning into glamorizing the subjects, and excoriating them. 

Part II takes a look at these same contrasting tendencies, but as applied to men. In the same conventional confines, they have been portrayed as the “heads of the family”, the ones shouldering responsibility on multiple levels: familial, financial, societal, etc. They are, then, supposed to be strong, not just for themselves, but for others, and when mental illness manifests itself through them, it follows that it’s others who also suffer. If they are family men, their families crumble. If they are career-driven, their careers take a hit. Whereas women seeking help is portrayed condescendingly on the screen (they must be taken care of), men admitting vulnerability is more than undesirable — it is shameful and dangerous (they must take care of others). 

The connotations are no less sexist; and in the same way that, as discussed in Part I, society is fascinated by the volatile, vulnerable, damaged woman, we are also drawn irresistibly to the seething, simmering man whose underlying violence could explode at any moment. Mad Men, Psycho, Beach Rats, Mr. Robot, A Clockwork Orange, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, We Need to Talk About Kevin, American Psycho, Full Metal Jacket

I could go on. 

Throughout literature, film, television etc., we have examples that all operate on the same principle: men, boys, teenagers on the edge, about to turn their rage outward with dangerous consequences. 

Society is fascinated by the volatile, vulnerable, damaged woman; we are also drawn irresistibly to the seething, simmering man whose underlying violence could explode at any moment.

Similarly to how five very different films underlined salient things about MIF and women, I took a look at five seminal films that did the same for men.

Jess Nichol’s Take Shelter (2011), Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now tackle alienation, familial chaos, notions of accountability and responsibility and much more, all from the standpoint of the troubled protagonists in question. Interestingly, because of this very fact, it becomes quickly apparent that we are entering the realm of the unreliable character. 

The chosen films dealing with the mentally ill woman (apart from Black Swan, which enters deeply into Nina's POV) take a more detached, observational role: women are subjected to the gaze of others, their self-destruction being witnessed and commented on by us spectators (and that says a lot about the agency that is often denied women, and the way we still talk down to them). 

Here, we are taken along the ride with the men — and what a ride it is.

From the onset, the films make clear that these men carry enormous burdens, and have valuable roles in their families and social circles. 

Curtis LaForche in Take Shelter is a construction worker who is trying to make ends meet for his small family: his wife Samantha who occasionally sells homemade goods at a community stand, and their deaf little girl who needs cochlear implant surgery.

Ed Avery’s job (Bigger Than Life) has an added symbolic measure: he is a schoolteacher, and a protector, of sorts, for the children under his care. He’s also the father of a young son who looks up to him and constantly asks for his time and attention.

Comparably, The Shining’s Jack Torrance is a father to an impressionable young son, and his job is also of an overseeing nature: he is literally a caregiver for the hotel, and the job is an invaluable financial opportunity for his entire family. 

While Apocalypse Now’s Captain Willard and his team’s upriver trek in Cambodia seems the obvious gravitational pull of the story, it’s Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz who’s the actual figure around whom everything revolves. He was a family man and a decorated career officer before the madness that eventually leads to the film’s inciting events. 

Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), in that sense, is an anomaly in that he doesn't have family of his own, but his role is no less insubstantial. He is a discharged Marine, and works as a taxi driver, shepherding people to and fro as a buffer to his own insomnia. He falls for (and becomes possessive of) Betsy, a political volunteer, and later becomes a protector of sorts for Jodie Foster’s character, a very young prostitute named Iris. Clearly, despite his pervasive loneliness, the instinct to look over others is something Travis cannot shake off.

What this further underlines is that the ensuing madness of the men at the center of these respective stories will not be devastating only for them. The films make a point to show how much the smooth operation of their carefully curated lives depends on their active, substantial participation. 

Jack Torrance uproots his entire family for his job; Ed Avery decides when family outings are going to take place, whether his wife is busy or not; Curtis is in charge of all manual labor, drives the car, and the medical insurance is in his name; his title gives Colonel Kurtz authority over his subordinates, but beyond that, all those who were sent, before Willard, to retrieve him and bring him back to the US ended up joining his cause, no doubt seduced by his charisma.

In other words: if these films are to be believed, men are synonymous with protection, security, stability and/or power. 

What happens to said power when these men begin to fray?

I pointed out in Part I that the titles used in the films regarding women always leant in the direction of euphemism or embellishment: the “swan” in Black Swan, The Hours denoting something delicate and muted, the virginal quality contrasting with “suicide” in the Virgin Suicides, Rachel at the Wedding promising something casual, “girl” toning down the awfulness that happens in Girl, Interrupted.

Films in which men are going to pieces tend to go the opposite route: “apocalypse” is as ominous as this so-called “shining”, even before we understand what it means. Similarly, Bigger Than Life connotes something outsize, larger than the individual or society can handle, while in Take Shelter one must protect oneself from it. The titles are urgent, doom-laden: does this mean theirs is a more crucial sort of pain? Or that women’s are simply a little less? 

A 1976 Taxi Driver review from critic Kathleen Carroll states:

De Niro … manages to be as sad as he is frightening. From his general discomfort with others and his feeble attempts at communication, it's possible to recognize the root cause of Travis' inner distress as a terrible longing for approval.

This contrasts sharply with the review I mentioned in Part I for Girl, Interrupted. In 1999, critic Stephen Holden writes:

Girl, Interrupted is a small, intense period piece with a hardheaded tough-love attitude toward lazy, self-indulgent little girls flirting with madness: You can drive yourself crazy, or you can get over it. The choice is yours.   

Perhaps the line is drawn by the fact that private, self-harm has always been more trivialized than the large-scale disasters wreaked by angry individuals; and considering that these films play into the internal (female) vs. external (male) dichotomy of illnesses’ expression, it’s not surprising that it skews the way the films themselves are received, even when the subject matter at heart — namely mental health — is the same.

Titles used in the films regarding women always lean in the direction of euphemism or embellishment.

That is not to say that the five films don’t deserve recognition for their attempts to start conversations: on the contrary.

Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now could be lumped into the same avenues: these are, at heart, stories about men who have seen the traumas of war, and have not found comfortable societal outlets to express themselves. Travis Bickle becomes increasingly disgusted with what he observes around him, namely corruption, degradation of morals and hypocrisy. When his relationship with Betsy sours, he becomes fixated with Palantine, the candidate she is working for; he also becomes fixated on his hatred for Sport, the violent pimp Iris cannot escape. Throughout the film, he simultaneously kindles and tries to escape all these dark thoughts: by working out, by collecting guns, by stalking Betsy, by trying to talk Iris out of being a prostitute. He only succeeds in culminating the depression that is being channeled through rage. 

Similarly, we understand that Kurtz has gone though comparable fluctuations: he is disillusioned by what the war requires of him, he is disillusioned with being an American, with following (and even, to some extent giving) orders. His turmoil expresses itself not only through violence (he is murdering with abandon, and encouraging his followers in that pursuit), but through intellectual dissent. He is a questioning, frustrated man, whose entire life has been upended along with his beliefs. 

It’s a potentially simplistic way of looking at things. Maybe Travis’ eventual outburst also stems from misogynistic notions wherein women are to be owned, possessed and given unsolicited advice about how they should lead their lives. Maybe Kurtz is just a violent, power-hungry man who has found an outlet for his acrimony. But to completely disregard mental illness as a variable would do disservice to the ways it sometimes expresses itself in comorbidity with other factors.

The other films pose similar questions. Curtis, in Take Shelter, has become progressively convinced that a terrible, cataclysmic storm is coming their way, and he begins feverishly building a large storm shelter in his backyard, under the perplexed and worried eyes of his family and peers. We could chalk all this up to stress-related tensions: Curtis is worried about finances, about his daughter’s health, about his own job, and he’s been suffering from petrifying nightmares. But the story points to another explanation: Curtis’ mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which started to develop at the very age he now is, and framed thusly, his behavior becomes suddenly more understandable.

It would also be tempting to peg Jack Torrance’s descent into madness as a concentrated form of cabin fever, or to supernatural causes. Not only that: he is trying to write a book, on top of fulfilling his job duties and salvaging his quietly crumbling marriage. But what emerges from this is also a man who is floundering under the strain of others’ expectations, and his bottled up vexations regarding his too-great responsibilities. When he flings off the mask of sanity, he also tosses all these burdens aside.

Ed, in Bigger Than Life, is suffering from an unexplained illness which causes blackouts and chronic pain; he is prescribed cortisone, but abuses it, and it soon capsizes his life. He becomes megalomaniac, agitated, or else swings the other way, into terrible depression. We could point the finger at a purely medical/chemical cause of origin, but first of all, addiction is, in itself, a disease. What is more, it’s not totally clear whether the medication is to blame for his change in personality, or whether his thin veneer of civility was always going to crumble: the medication was merely an outlet. Not unlike Travis and Kurtz, Ed begins to question everything: education, marriage, religion, all of which, in his mid-century suburban setting, is downright blasphemous. 

Author Judith Rabkin (159) states that “in our culture, it is less socially acceptable to behave in a disruptive, bizarre, or troublesome fashion than to act withdrawn, detached, or depressed.”

The protagonists all have in common the fact that their mental illness renders them incapable or unwilling to conform to what society expects of them. Their turmoil does not simply manifest itself the way it did with the women in the other five films, who either tried to kill themselves or relied on drugs and alcohol to escape it. Here, although to some extent they do (Travis unsuccessfully attempts to take his own life), it never comes close to that level of self-injury. It manifests itself in relation to their roles: as they lose touch with reality, they frenetically try to protect, to re-educate, to restructure, to direct. Their families, loved ones, friends and entourage are included in their suffering, so that the protagonists are no longer just human beings in crisis: they are fathers, sons, leaders and husbands in crisis. 

It’s not surprising, then, that films approach the notion of consequences differently where men and women are concerned: the latter’s pain can be trivialized, because they are only hurting themselves, and because it does not have more serious repercussions. The films show that men, on the contrary, cannot be afforded that level of liberating madness, because if they lose their minds, everything that is being held up by them also implodes. Their incapacity to do so makes them dangerous threats that must be silenced (Kurtz), shunned (Travis), contained (Jack) or otherwise sedated (Curtis, Ed). 

And while the women are belittled and condescended to, as demonstrated in Part I, unstable men provoke hostility, recrimination and fear, a notion that sociologist Walter R. Gove (42) maintains: “women might be more likely than men to appear to be mentally ill, for women may feel it is more appropriate to talk about their psychological symptoms.”

This might in turn explain why the outburst, when it happens, tends to be outward: following the (arguable) logic that men only hurt others, perhaps it is a way to punish a society that has historically shunted their suffering as something they are not allowed to acknowledge.

While women are belittled and condescended to, unstable men provoke hostility.

Most of these films have similar, grisly climaxes. 

Apocalypse Now: Willard finds Kurtz in the Cambodian jungle (or rather, is captured by Kurtz). The latter holds him hostage for days, filibustering him with his haunting, hypnotic philosophies about life, society and human nature. After he releases him, Willard comes back to fulfill his mission, and kills Kurtz, putting an end to the man’s life, but also potentially carrying the torch of disillusionment as he himself returns to a society he will no longer understand. Kurtz’ final words, “the horror… the horror…”, hang overhead, a litany we can imagine will carry into Willard’s psyche going forward.

Taxi Driver: after unsuccessfully trying to assassinate Palantine at a rally, a bloodthirsty Travis turns his rage instead to Sport, Iris’ pimp, and all his acolytes. In the gunfight, he kills them all, and although he is later congratulated for the effort (the newspaper assuming he was a vigilante of sorts), we know that there was no heroic intentions behind his madness-fueled rampage. 

Bigger Than Life: not only does he start spending money recklessly (and getting angry at his wife for pointing it out); during a parent-teacher conference, a very manic Ed starts clamoring about the pointlessness of societal institutions and societal order, to the horror of the scandalized parents.

The Shining: Jack Torrance snaps, so to speak, and begins pursuing his family with an axe. He nearly kills his wife and son, but they escape just in time. He freezes to death in the snow, while they abandon the Overlook Hotel and save themselves.

Take Shelter: Curtis has a very public outburst during a neighborhood gathering, where he angrily rants about the storm that is coming for them all. He has, at this point, already lost his job, his friends, and his family’s meager savings (putting his daughter’s cochlear implant surgery in jeopardy as well).

Following the traditional notions of masculinity, leadership and/or fatherhood these films underline, we can see how emotional and psychiatric instability directly affects their authoritative status and/or reputations, which in turn leads to shame and helplessness. 

This is something the characters express at one point or another, whether through their words or actions: Curtis constantly apologizes to his wife, as does Ed; Travis tries to protect his virility through strengthening his body and surrounding himself with weapons; Kurtz reinforces his position as a leader by roping in followers, and getting rid of anyone who will not adhere to his doctrines; Jack maintains a detached, emotionless veneer towards his wife and son, allowing glimpses of his vulnerability only through gritted teeth. 

Having said all that: these films may, in fact, be suggesting something more revolutionary than the notion that men are not allowed to show weakness. They may be suggesting that the way we view their place in the family unit and in society as a whole should be recalibrated.

Sociologists Ann Bartel and Paul Taubman (255) state that

Mental illness has significant economic and demographic consequences. It reduces an individual's earnings, affects his ability to marry or stay married, lowers the number of children that he has, and encourages his wife to work.

Of course, a woman’s decision to work isn’t tied to a man’s inability to do so (the text was published in 1986, so perhaps this wasn’t such an obvious statement to make then). 

What I, however, discern in this idea is the possibility to upend what many still hold as gospel: that men are emotionless, that they are the sole pillars of their families, that they are unable to internalize their pain, that if they show weakness, everything that depends on them will follow.

I stated, in Part I, that MIF painted women with a broad brush: incapable, weak, bird-boned, tragic. I also stated that, similarly, MIF paint men with a same pejorative stoke. I lamented that this may reinforce notions that many are only too eager to buy into. But perhaps these films are portraying how mental illness affects these individuals to show, on the contrary, that we must stop seeing people in such reductive terms.

In other words: maybe the protagonists (virile, macho-men, decision-makers) were chosen as the subjects of these stories precisely to debunk the myth that only weak-willed men succumb to mental illness. Statistics do not lie: men are still more likely to commit suicide successfully than women. Addiction, self-harm, eating disorders and the like also do not also discriminate genders, any more than depression does. 

Unlike films portraying women suffering from mental illness (which, as I previously stated, either glamorize or accentuate preconceived notions that have often been tacked onto women), those portraying men suffering from it could be doing service to everyone involved: by showing men capable of being sensitive and asking for help (as do Curtis, Ed, and even Travis at one point), as well as by showing women being the breadwinners, the heads of their own families, or else a part of a complementary team.

And while Taxi Driver and The Shining do not bode well for the family unit (in one case, it is nonexistent, and in the other, the wife and son have fled), the other three films are a little less pessimistic. Kurtz asks Willard to pass on a message to his son and wife (who will presumably become the sole guardian and assume all responsibilities going forward), and Curtis and Ed’s wives and children tighten their support of them after their turmoil has come to light.

A legitimate, authentic conversation about mental illness is still, I believe, in its nascent stages. We have had many false starts throughout history, and many derailments over the years. Films and shows are invaluable tools to advance these conversations, and they are still being done in ways that are either too gratuitous, or too cautious; either too flowery or too damning

Accurate, thoughtful representation, additionally, is still a glaring issue:

- the fact that some of the most popular MIF don’t include minorities or non-binary folks underlines that we still think of this as concerning only a very specific part of the population.

- the fact that men are taken seriously, portrayed in gritty, realistic scenarios while women are still reduced to clichés, even in their suffering, is also very telling.

- the fact that insanity and violence still go hand-in-hand in horror films, or that children’s psychological troubles are mainly explainable through supernatural elements like hauntings, and not the actual, real-life conditions that plague them, is simply regrettable.

We still have miles and miles to go; this, more than anything, is why I am still on the fence regarding genre-fying MIF into a category: would this only hurt or help the conversation of a subject that remains largely simplified, largely feared, largely misunderstood?