Two Voices: Delusion in Cinema

I suspect that Hollywood agents, when sifting through the deluge of scripts they inevitably must receive, place them into three piles: the good, the bad, and the Oscar. The ones in the Oscar pile are all about disabilities, mental and physical illnesses, and the plucky underdogs who overcome these obstacles to gain love and success, bless ’em. It’s not hard to imagine the likes of Tom Hanks frothing at the mouth over the chance to play a man with a slightly dicky knee, or Jodie Foster getting het up about a role as a single mother with bad indigestion. But I’d bet nothing excites an actor (even if that actor is usually Jack Nicholson) like a good bout of madness, because they get to be sympathetic while still looking pretty. And to be honest, there are few cinematic spectacles as entertaining as seeing a star go sweaty-palmed and frothy-mouthed in the depiction of lunacy.

The portrayal of a deluded state by actor and film-maker is a little more complex than merely chewing the scenery and gibbering like a chimp. In psychiatry, a delusion is defined as a false belief strongly held in spite of invalidating evidence, and typically the being in a state of delusion is otherwise rational and even able to explain their belief in a structured way. Using psychiatric conditions as narrative tools rather than cheap plot hooks has been achieved many times, but only successfully by the most skilled storytellers. An apology in advance then – to discuss some of these films, I will have to spoil a few plot twists. At the risk of alienating The Mind’s Construction’s readership, you should stop if you come across the title of a film that you don’t wish to be irrevocably ruined.

Alfred Hitchcock used the themes of paranoia, obsession and delusion throughout his career, but none grasped hold of the world’s imagination like Psycho (1960). Despite deliberate B-movie styling and accompanying bargain-basement title, Psycho looks at the extreme results of a convergence of psychiatric problems: schizophrenia, delusion, an oedipal complex. Though Norman Bates says he lives with his mother, his evidence is very unreliable: his mother is dead and he has assumed her personality, dressing up to kill those who might seek to disrupt the relationship between Bates’ dissonant personalities. Unlike Ed Gein, the real killer whose crimes inspired Psycho (and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Bates is an absolutely banal character: a helpful and lonely young man who seems trapped by a domineering mother. It is through that banality that Hitchcock convinces the audience of the mother’s existence: a shrill voice, a face at a window, a conversation between her and the nervous son. By presenting her to the viewer as real, we are drawn into the delusion along with Norman, and we have no choice but to believe the evidence as it is presented to us. It is a much copied technique, not least in Fight Club (2000) but very effective. Even after forty years, Psycho is still a compelling and frightening thriller.

Compare this relatively complex rendering with one of Psycho’s contemporaries, Roger Corman’s wonderfully lurid The Pit and The Pendulum (1961). Vincent Price (who crams as much acting as he possibly can into each and every scene) plays both Don Nicholas Medina and his father – a notorious sadist of the Spanish Inquisition. Though his father is long dead, Nicholas is haunted by a childhood experience in which he saw his cuckolded papa literally get medieval on the asses of Nicholas’ cheating mother and uncle. When his wife dies, Nicholas is plagued by the idea that he buried her alive and slips into madness – culminating in a personality shift into his cruel father when history seems to be repeating itself. Though it’s one of the most entertaining movies ever made, The Pit and The Pendulum is far from subtle when it comes to Nicholas’ mental state: Price gnashes his teeth, wails and wobbles all over the place when his delusion threatens to consume him, then suddenly becomes graceful and quietly sinister when dad moves back in. It’s complete pantomime, but what a show! The viewer is shown the delusion as being frightening, but entirely unrealistic. We’re never on the inside, unlike Psycho, and any glimpse into the psyche of Nicholas is purely through Price’s wanton scene-stealing.

The most recent successful vehicle for schizophrenic delusion is the epochal Fight Club. Director David Fincher, whose films all deal with delusion some way (The Game and Panic Room – paranoia; Se7en – delusions of grandeur; even Alien3 has an excised subplot in which a character frees the trapped creature of the title under the delusion that it is “a dragon”, and should be revered). Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, the protagonist Tyler Durden creates two distinct personalities as a response to the post-yuppie pressures of modern manhood. Through careful construction we see these two halves – played by Ed Norton and Brad Pitt – interact with each other and seemingly with groups of other people. By giving us two heroes who are often in opposition to one another – one a bundle of righteous neurosis, the other a charismatic anarchist demigod – Fight Club pulls a very neat trick on an audience. Sides are taken, and battle lines analogous to those drawn in the film are established by the viewer. That they ultimately are shown to be the parts of same person is a revelation that serves only a symbolic device within the film, to make a point about compartmentalised lifestyles, about emasculation. As a narrative device, it is almost needless: once the twist is revealed, these two characters remain in opposition and nothing changes between them. But it does offer an unusual and very modern perspective on these older themes.

The rage of Norman Bates and Don Medina is vented upon society in violence and murder, and once they are identified as deluded or mad, they are removed from society. Though Fight Club’s Tyler Durden lashes out with extreme destruction of property, his rage is internalised, a man not only in a mental struggle but, incredibly, in actual physical combat with himself. It might be a facile examination of the clinical realities of such disorders, but it keeps alive the idea sprung in Don Quixote, and the titular hero’s noble grasp for reason in a world of delusion and change, and which flows through the predatory, detached antiheroes of Bret Easton Ellis: the notion that the human mind is a fertile stage upon which to set an examination of the world around us.

Nick Orwin | Spring 2004