Girl, Interrupted, like the only other James Mangold film I’ve seen, Walk the Line, is an average film with above average performances. It almost makes me think the guy should be an acting coach or something rather than a director. Here, Angelina Jolie walks away with the film with her supporting role of Lisa, and makes you kind of wish the film was from her character’s point of view rather than Ryder’s. What a ride that would have been.
Susanna Kayson (Winona Ryder) is a recent high school graduate in the later ’60s with no real direction in her life. After a suicide attempt, she is admitted to Claymore, a mental hospital in the suburbs of Boston. Though outside of a vague diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, no one really understands what’s wrong with her, but she fits in with the other patients at the hospital. She is particularly taken with Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a sociopath who seems to control all of the other patients with her charm. At odds with Lisa is Daisy (Britney Murphy), a disturbed young woman obsessed with chicken. All of the women are supervised by Nurse Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave).
The film halfheartedly presents different views of mental illness. By the end of the film, Susanna begins to believe that whether or not she is actually “crazy,” she can open up to Dr. Wick and by going through therapy and doing what she is supposed to, can eventually return to a “normal” life. There is some debate as to whether there is something actually wrong with her, or if she is just lazy or cowardly as Valerie accuses her of in a wonderfully acted scene by Goldberg. On the other hand, Lisa is more of the belief that those with mental illness see the truth whereas normal people are more delusional. In the end though, the film more agrees with the institutional view of the matter, sort of neutering Lisa’s character in the process. This neat resolution sets the film in opposition to the classic it is so obviously inspired by, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Honestly, the reason to see this movie is not to discover something new about mental illness, because that’s not really going to happen here. The reason to see this movie is less for what’s actually about and rather to witness Angelina Jolie’s magnetic performance. Jolie is obviously very famous, but for whatever reason I haven’t seen her in a ton of movies. Here, she wins an Academy Award and really earns it. She’s such a joy to watch, she makes the character more compelling than she probably otherwise would have been. Despite Winona Ryder’s best efforts, she can’t really compete with Jolie when she’s onscreen, and the film really suffers whenever she’s not there. I think if the movie had been more about Lisa’s point of view it would have been a lot better. A. We would have seen how a sociopath functions which is a lot less familiar to most viewers, and B. We would have more Angelina Jolie which would have been a great thing.
In terms of cinematography and more importantly production design, I wish the film had felt more like the ’60s. Maybe because we’re stuck in an insane asylum for the most part, which is just institutional white walls no matter what time period it is, but this felt more like a movie with a distinctly ’90s viewpoint rather than fully immersed in the time period. They made a point of putting in ’60s pop songs and had everyone smoking all the time, but honestly, after watching The Virgin Suicides not too long ago I was left wanting more. Now, the films are very different but what that film was able to go was create an immersive world, whereas this one felt like every mental hospital you’ve seen before. I’m not saying this film should have been what the The Virgin Suicides was, but that film had a lot more personality than this one, which outside of Jolie, is basically generic ’90s land.
The cinematography by Jack N. Green makes everything look quite nice and harmless (mostly high key warm lighting), a strange choice from my standpoint but I suppose it helps create a sense of normalcy in a situation that most would be inclined to view as strange, thereby encouraging identification with the characters. There was a particular shot where Ryder is sitting in her room alone, and the light from the window shifts to the door when the rest of the girls come in to visit her. It was a nice way to reinforce the community the group shares. That was a small moment, though perhaps the technique was used throughout the film and I only noticed it right then.
Girl, Interrupted may not be the most compelling look at mental illness out there, but an effort was made and that’s something. The movie’s themes may fall by the wayside in the wake of the experience of witnessing Jolie’s performance, but that’s not the worst thing that could have happened. Think if she hadn’t been cast in this movie. Surely the whole thing would have been horribly dull and not much else.
“Maybe I was just crazy. Maybe it was the 60s. Or maybe I was just a girl… interrupted.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
For Further Reading: