Sunday, November 02, 2008

Psychiatry, Hollywood Style


Warning: early plot spoilers...I don't discuss the end at all.

I went to the movies last night and saw The Changeling. It was an intense, riveting movie. Based on a true story: the year is 1928, the town is Los Angeles, and 9-year-old boy is missing, his single mother is terribly distraught, and 5 months later the boy is returned to the mother except, oops, wrong child. There is a side plot about the corrupt police department, and they are using the mother-child reunion as an example of how things sometimes go right, so no one is happy when the child who claims to be the missing Walter Collins steps off the train and mom is not over-joyed. Pictures are taken, and the police chief convinces mom that the boy has changed with time. Take him home on a 'trial basis,' really, this shorter kid is yours. The dentist and teacher confirm that it's not the right kid, but the police have their own doctors in hand, and oh no, they all manage to paint mom as being paranoid when she wants the police to re-open the case and find her the right kid. In the meantime, she's got this other kid hanging around who calls her Mommy.

Mrs. Collins gets agitated while talking to the police chief who simply insists, we got you the right kid. He has her taken away to the psychopathic ward. The staff are emotionless, the place is bleak, the rooms are cells with bars and the room doors have windows with hatches. The patients are all unwashed (though Angelino Jolie's makeup never comes off) and they are dressed in hospital johnnies to make certain they look all the crazier. Medication is forced, and if you smack the shrink, you're hauled off for immediate and un-anaesthetised ECT where the button gets pushed by blank-faced nurses who have no thoughts of their own. And if you refuse to sign a paper saying the police were right, they did nothing wrong, and the kiddy they gave you is yours, same thing-- more ECT, especially if you say to the shrink who asks for the signature, "F** you and the horse you rode in on." To help matters, the psychiatric ward is full of women who've questioned the police (--this could be a setting in Communist Russia) where it's so much easier to call whistle-blowers psychotic and lock them away forever. My favorite was the prostitute, played by Amy Ryan, who was locked up for claiming one of her clients had brutalized her, and oops he was a policeman. She tells the protagonist, ""You gotta do everything you can to look normal. If you smile too much, you're delusional; if you don't smile, you're depressed." Oh, there was something brilliant about if you don't do either, but I can't remember or find the whole line. The message was a simple one of you can't win and no matter who you are, the psychiatrist finds a way of contorting into something being horribly wrong with you.

It's a pretty bleak view of psychiatry all done Hollywood style.