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The 10 Best Portrayals of Mental Illness in Modern Movies
By: Bill Gibron
Apr 22, 2013
The 10 Best Portrayals of Mental Illness in Modern Movies

For actors, it’s a cinematic gift, a chance to play a characteristic as well as a character. For directors, it’s a chance to explore the psyche in visual and narrative detail. For audiences, it’s a window into a world they will (hopefully) never experience. When combined in the just the right way, without histrionics or spectacle, the results can be incredible. With the latest example (at number nine) hitting home video this week, it’s time to look at the ten best examples of cuckoos since, well, Cuckoo’s Nest. Call them crazy or nuts, but the truth is, there’s a great deal of universal human struggle in these individual stories. There’s also a lot of motion picture artistry here from everyone involved.

#10 – Melancholiacrazyinfilms10

Mental Illness: Depression

Actor: Kirsten Dunst

As a follow-up to his equally disturbing Antichrist, Dogme ’95 auteur Lars Von Trier decided to explore the end of the world via a family in freefall. At the center of his narrative is Justine, a young woman who becomes nearly catatonic, worried that Armageddon is approaching. Sure enough, a rogue planet named Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth. Dunst may not have earned Oscar recognition for her work, but she did win the Best Actress award at Cannes — and she deserved it.

#9 – Silver Linings Playbookcrazyinfilms9

Mental Illness: Bipolar Disorder

Actor: Bradley Cooper

For many, he’s a funny guy or the straight man in funny films. Others see him as a thinking man’s romantic lead. In either case, Cooper broke the mold when he made this film, a fresh approach to mental illness from notorious director David O. Russell. Though his issue is not front and center as it is with other similarly-styled narratives, we do get a feel for the effects of the malady. Equally amazing is how Cooper keeps it simmering just beneath the surface.

#8 – Psychocrazyinfilms8

Mental Illness: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Actor: Anthony Perkins

For many, this was the first time that such a psychological situation was featured in a mainstream movie. Of course, horror fans wince the moment you mention Norman Bates’ problem, and the last act mea culpa lecture by Simon Oakland about what such a “split” entails. No matter the wrap-up, Hopkins does a defiant job in keeping Norman and “Mother” separate. The moment when he/she attacks Vera Miles says more about the syndrome than any police profiler.

#7 – Matchstick Mencrazyinfilms7

Mental Illness: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (among many)

Actor: Nicolas Cage

While more people are familiar with Jack Nicholson’s showboating turn in As Good As It Gets, this is the OCD movie we prefer. Ridley Scott, staying away from starships and androids for once, puts Cage through his con man paces, highlighting a screenplay which features a mentally unbalanced huckster who must deal with a teenage daughter he didn’t know he had. As he did in Leaving Las Vegas, our lead owns his problems. Unlike said film, Cage didn’t get the kudos he clearly deserves here.

#6 – Shinecrazyinfilms6

Mental Illness: Schizoaffective Disorder

Actor: Geoffrey Rush

They say that actors like playing “crazy” because the result is usually an awards season bonanza. Such was the case with this then-unknown Australian actor who blew onto the scene and swept the 1996 talent trophies. Granted, the first half of the film offers equally amazing work from young Noah Taylor, but it was Rush who provided the proper adult perspective. He took home the gold statue that year, and hasn’t looked back since.

#5 – 12 Monkeyscrazyinfilms5

Mental Illness: Schizophrenia

Actor: Brad Pitt

The first of two appearances on our list for this brave matinee idol. Hot off his work in Thelma and Louise as well as A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall, he made a radical left turn here, costarring with Bruce Willis in Terry Gilliam’s futureshock epic. His character, who may or may not be the cause of humanity’s end, is full of false prophesies and physical tics. For Pitt, it remains some of his best onscreen acting ever.

#4 – Spidercrazyinfilms4

Mental Illness: Schizophrenia

Actor: Ralph Fiennes

Imagine this amazing pairing: director David Cronenberg, known for his unsettling bio-horror, and the actor who played the nasty Nazi Amon Goth. Now blame Sony Pictures Classic for why you’ve never seen this brilliant take on the above-mentioned ailment. Haunted by memories of sex and death, Fiennes allows subtlety to rule, creating an unforgettable portrait of a man shaken and unsettled by his thoughts, as well as the reasons he was/is hospitalized in the first place.

#3 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestcrazyinfilms3

Mental Illness: Narcissistic Personality Disorder 

Actor: Jack Nicholson

For many, it was just a matter of time. After earning nods for Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and Chinatown, Nicholson finally snagged Oscar gold for playing the sociable rebel Randle McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s non-conformist classic. It remains a total tour de force, a near hurricane like performance that wipes out almost everything, including his equally adept co-stars Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif, in its path. In a career full of movie milestones, this is one of Nicholson’s best.

#2 – Fight Clubcrazyinfilms2

Mental Illness: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Actor: Edward Norton/Brad Pitt

Perhaps the better mention would be for director David Fincher. He hired Norton to play the put-upon insurance adjuster working hard to hide potential recall issues — and then gave him a (SPOILER ALERT) sexy alter ego to represent everything his character was not. Pitt plays Tyler Durden like a rotting rock star, a man enamored with his power over people and his potency as a sex partner. His comeuppance is all the more sweet when we realize it’s all part of Norton’s unhinged personality.

#1 – Clean, Shavencrazyinfilms1

Mental Illness: Schizophrenia

Actor: Peter Greene

Few have seen this penetrating, difficult movie which attempts to take a less hysterical look at the trials and tribulations of the mentally ill. Greene, perhaps best known as the hillbilly rapist Zed from Pulp Fiction, turns in such amazing work that it’s almost impossible to see him afterward and not think of his performance here. He is so convincing and unheralded filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan is so sparse in his hints at the character’s inner horror that it’s only at the end, when it’s all over, that the impact is apparent.