Since I saw it last June, I have considered and reconsidered Carey Mulligan’s performance in the stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly (which, I admit, I still have not seen). I think about this performance on a weekly basis, at least. She portrayed a woman railing unsuccessfully against family disconnect and symptoms of schizophrenia and manic depression. She did it so beautifully and completely that I wonder why so many cinematic representations of crumbling sanity leave so much insight and nuance to be desired. But some, of course, do not. While I could attribute Mulligan’s superior performance to her ingenuity or to the particular intimacy and immediacy afforded by the stage, having her tear-stained face eight feet in front of mine enhanced the portrayal only so much. The real force of her performance lay in the dichotomy of terror and secrecy: alone onstage, Mulligan’s Karin revealed sheer horror at the prospect of succumbing to insanity; surrounded by her husband, brother and father, she desperately tried to foster a sense of lighthearted family fun while trying to hide the mounting mental illness that all three men already suspected she had. She was dealing with one of the most terrifying fates I can imagine, and she was dealing with it in secret while trying to maintain her family. Along with the prowess of the performance, this particular pickle calls to mind two of my favorite psychologically tortured heroes in film: the somber, suffering Curtis in Take Shelter and the eponymous misfit martyr in Donnie Darko.
In the best movie of last year, Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, Michael Shannon proved his inimitable pathos. (It is such an unbelievable, potent, poignant film and was so inexcusably overlooked by critics and moviegoers alike that I have trouble approaching it objectively, or at least analytically, while maintaining my self-appointed post as the film’s liaison to the world.) Shannon’s Curtis, a quiet blue-collar man, suffers from vivid nightmares of natural disasters and manmade violence that signal the end of the world. He becomes obsessed with fear, both of the potential apocalypse and of his genetic predisposition for schizophrenia; but which fear is greater? Would he rather his visions of the violent end of the world were mad dreams, or his self-diagnosis of mental illness were false? Unwilling to rule out either theory, Curtis tries to keep his visions to himself. But he soon sacrifices his job and his family's savings to build a storm shelter in the backyard. After an especially extreme night terror, he is forced to explain his psyche to his wife (Jessica Chastain), who proves to be a more devoted and supportive companion than he or I expected. Once she knows his secret, however, the film takes a turn: Curtis is no longer alone in his fears, no longer hiding his visions and all their implications, no longer protecting his family from himself; and while his fears have not abated much by the time he agrees to seek treatment at a mental hospital, he has a rational, determined partner with whom to share the awful burden of potential insanity. In the end, there is no clear answer and certainly no happy one. Do we pray for his sanity, and therefore the end of everything, or do we sacrifice Curtis's mind for the sake of the world?
Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko hinges on a similar secret terror, but in a considerably different context. Within a financially secure family, a presumably paranoid schizophrenic teenager alternately rejects and obeys Frank, the so-called imaginary man in the rabbit suit who appears to him with projections for "when the world will end." Donnie escapes death, floods his school, defaces its mascot, finds a girlfriend, burns down the house of the local inspirational speaker/closeted child pornographer, grasps The Philosophy of Time Travel, shoots his girlfriend's accidental killer and dies, all in the span of the 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds Frank said it would take for Donnie's world to end (action-packed, no?). He mentions Frank and the pending apocalypse to his psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) only when hypnotized, and he merely hints at his visions to his girlfriend (Jena Malone). His family knows he is on medication, and from his psychiatrist his parents learn he is showing signs of paranoid schizophrenia, but he never tells them anything himself. Even when his young sister catches him having an acrimonious conversation with the invisible Frank in the bathroom, he offer the meager explanation, "I'm just taking my pills, Sam." He keeps his secret because he believes he is losing his mind at the same time as he believes he and everyone else has only four weeks to live. For Donnie, what would be the point of sharing his troubles? If he is insane, he wants no one to know the extent of it. If the world must end, why worry everyone? He remains almost entirely isolated from the people he knows and the society they compose, and this emotional solitude leads him to believe there is some credible truth to the apocalyptic visions that seem to spring from madness. Though his greatest fear is dying alone, it is his desperate choice to live alone that eventually does him in.
Many thanks to Creative Commons and Flickr member Roger Mommaerts for the above image.