Mental Health Through the Lens of Cinema, Episode 2: Merging Genres for a Stronger Story


How is it that Daniel Radcliffe playing an undead amnesiac with superhuman abilities for 97 minutes in Swiss Army Man (2016) is somehow a better representation of the complexity of depression and mental illness than most other movies ever made?


 

In my previous piece, I discussed how restraints and expectations within movie genres result in often stigmatising tropes about mental illness being presented to audiences, and how this impacts our perceptions and attitudes towards those with mental health problems.


Conventional scriptwriting rules state that science-fiction and action flicks are comfortably full of unrealistic storylines, whilst drama leans more to ‘reality’. However, a great storyteller should be able to use such discrete genre conventions in a less rigid way. If staying true to life is the goal, then surely this fluidity would only help do that better.


A fantastic movie, and an example of this, is the aforementioned Swiss Army Man. The film’s romanticism of life is mixed with humour, fantasy and simply odd premises — yet this exists without belittling the genuine feelings associated with depression.


This is the story of Hank, a severely depressed castaway, attempting to commit suicide, and of how his hopelessness, helplessness, and desperation reanimate a washed-up corpse with absurd super-human abilities, whom Hank names Manny.


Once Hank realises that he can maneuverer the corpse much like a swiss army knife (if a swiss army knife could chop down trees and shoot pebbles as bullets from its mouth), the two make plans to escape the island and get back to civilisation.


Throughout the film, we see their growing, albeit strange, friendship. Manny doesn’t remember anything about his life before death, nor about much else, and Hank responds to the childlike Manny by teaching him about all sorts of concepts of life. Hank opens up to Manny about why he wanted to end his life — his pain, misery, and loneliness, even before becoming stranded on the island.


Manny, through Hank’s incessant talking, learns again how to speak, and starts to express the same existentialist content and deep melancholy that Hank had expressed.


Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man (2016); credit: IMDB

As the movie progresses, a shift in their dynamic occurs.


Noticing Manny’s growing hopelessness, Hank is now the one telling him about all the things that make life worth living. This is a life-like portrayal of depression: Hank teaching Manny about all the things that make people happy whilst he himself does not find peace in these things, reminds us of the fact that people with depression are aware of what should be making them happy, but simply knowing is not enough.


Writers and directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan manage to do this so well because they comfortably blur the lines between genres; there’s comedy, drama, fantasy, and science fiction A huge role is even played by the film score which acts almost as narrator, seamlessly transitioning one scene to the next.


 

The demand for more honest stories, regardless of genre, has become significantly more apparent over the last decade. While mediums which allow our wants and opinions to be shared with the world have existed for some time, none come close in magnitude nor rapidity to social media. In the age of Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube, content creators can see what audiences want with almost no difficulty.


That being said, transparency to this degree comes with just as much bad as good; there is a risk that creators take advantage of knowing what audiences want, and use this information for monetary and social gain. In cinema, this pandering often results in uninteresting, one-dimensional side characters with mental health problems whose entire identity is ‘the one with depression’ or ‘the one with bipolar disorder’.


It may seem silly, but Power Rangers (2017) handles this really well. When Billy, AKA the Blue Ranger, tells Jason, AKA the Red Ranger, that he is “on the spectrum” — an accepted lay term to indicate that someone may be living with autism — he states simply that “my brain doesn’t work like yours”. Throughout the movie, this fact is continually brought up; Billy is a kid with autism, and also a superhero. The movie does this with empathy and respect for kids like Billy.


It sounds so simple because it is.


If a children’s superhero movie, the first superhero movie to have an autistic superhero, can do it with such ease, then why not all other science fiction films? For example, what about the infinitely more popular Marvel movies?


While fan speculation on social media often suggests that some characters struggle with some degree of mental disorder, the “canon” material most familiar to audiences itself very rarely confirms this.


Captain America’s life-long friend Bucky Barnes has suffered traumatic experiences which are often linked back to the brainwashing he endured for years as The Winter Soldier. Throughout his appearances across the series, he becomes more and more sullen, as most recently evident in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and then in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). But, there’s only so much character exploration you can do when given 24 on-screen minutes out of a total of 296 minutes across two films.


James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, AKA War Machine, faces similar treatment after his accident inthe Civil War movie.


Tony Stark/Iron Man in Iron Man 3 (2013), is the only actual example of a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie attempting to portray a mental disorder.


What’s unique here is the accurate portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We see Tony’s PTSD symptoms being triggered by the young boy’s questions about The Battle of New York. His hyperventilation and panic attack brought on by the questions is realistic and relatable to audiences.


Don Cheadle (Rhodey Rhodes) and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark) in Iron man 3, credit: movie-screencaps.com

Throughout the film, we see him triggered repeatedly by different situations, highlighting the diversity of a condition like PTSD.


However, much like with Bucky Barnes, and Rhodey, by the time we see Tony three years later in the Civil War film, this sophisticated plotline is forgotten, and never again shown in the same way.


 

Undeniably, regardless of writer and director intent, the final decision on storylines and characters portrayal comes down to the studios and executives leading the production. Though it may seem cynical, what it boils down to is that the film must attract the largest audience and the most profit.


In contrast to the familiar genre-based format, films like Swiss Army Man showcase the superfluity of dividing genres in this way. If staying “true-to-life” is really the goal, even if only partially, then I would argue that blurring the lines of science-fiction and comedy could show more emotional and candid portrayals of people living with mental illness.


In these first two episodes, I have discussed how poor depictions of mental illness in the movies that we watch can affect the ways that we interact with actual real-life sufferers.


But what about poor depictions of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals? What are the consequences of movies vilifying medical professions?


I will discuss this in Episode 3: The “Mad Scientist” trope.