Great films make you glad to be alive and free, especially if you watch one about a mental institution. No matter what struggles you may be facing, watching the certifiably insane puts all your own worries in perspective. While “crazy” has become a lazy epithet, people are generally and genuinely terrified that they actually are. The more fervently we believe in a cause, and the more we want others to agree with us, the more we may be perceived as mentally unstable. Hollywood has dramatized mental institutions and the patients within to perfection. In both comedy and horror, the best films remind audiences that when our backs are against the wall and we have something to prove, we can seem just as crazy as those in the sanitarium.
Here is our list of the Top 10 Crazy Movies About Mental Institutions.
If a lead character has briefly been in a mental institution, may soon enter a mental institution, or perpetually resides in one, that movie is fair game. So are your comments, if you disagree.
10 Silence of the Lambs (1991)
If you eat people for sport and pair their organs with white wine, you’ll probably end up in a mental institution. According to most people, that is not a normal meal. For The Silence of the Lambs, it makes for a spectacularly abnormal film. Hollywood puts to use its favorite trope: using the bad guy to help catch someone worse. What could go wrong? As the film jumps across mental institutions of increasing security, Hannibal Lecter (played by Sir Anthony Thomas) gets closer to regaining his freedom. For a clinically insane cannibal, helping catch the skin-master Buffalo Bill can provide both titillation and a chance at escape.
In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter not only experienced the quietude of the sanitarium cell, but also enjoyed the pleasures of a Jason X-esque facemask to keep his creepy mouth all sealed up. At the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Mr. Lecter was patient zero, the kind of inmate that keeps sanitariums in business. In Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award Best Picture winning movie, however, he becomes one of cinema’s most recognizable characters, transcending genre to summon a variety of emotions in the audience. Repulsion led the polls.
9 The Great Gatsby (2013)
While F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel made no mention of an asylum, Baz Luhrmann framed his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby in the hollow interior of one. Nick Carraway, the reliable, albeit Gatsby-besotted narrator, is first introduced through the frosted windows of a sanitarium. He may actually be more depressed than insane, but his time in the institution is a byproduct of the countless hours spent amongst Manhattan’s boozing bourgeoisie.
While Luhrmann’s movie may have over-emphasized the pomp and circumstance of the roaring twenties, his portrayal of the socialite’s plight ultimately proved haunting. As with Jay Gatsby’s tragic ending, Nick Carraway skulks in the offices of a sanitarium, trying to make sense of the life he lived and lost. Apparently he couldn’t understand how Jay-Z’s rhymes showed up in the Jazz Age.
8 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator: Genisys may have struggled in the domestic market, but it will take a much larger flop to ruin our fondest memories from James Cameron’s legendary sequel. Terminator 2: Judgment Day opens with Sarah Connor wearing skivvies in the white-walled claustrophobia of a mental institution. The audience remembers what Sarah experienced, but we can’t be sure if she has truly lost her mind since the events from the first film.
Here’s why T2 made our list: when she sees the Arnold Schwarzenegger T-800 turn the corner, she literally experiences a euphoric agony. Connor, played by actress Linda Hamilton, is so shocked, horrified and weirdly vindicated that she appears to have an out of body experience. To relive that kind of revelation, to re-encounter the terror of her past in the tight confines of a mental institution, is the definition of fear.
7 12 Monkeys (1995)
Madness can be subjective. This calls to mind the Keanu Reeves Bill & Ted meme in which he blankly stares at the sky and asks, “What if I’m insane…and my parents never told me?” (Pro tip: ask your younger siblings or children the same question and see how they react.) In Terry Gilliam’s 1998 cult-classic, 12 Monkeys, time-travel, lucid dreams, genocidal viruses and philosophizing on the state of madness are all explored through characters James Cole (Bruce Willis) and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt).
Gilliam proved to be the perfect director for the film, as his signature visual style accentuated the disjointed plot. Because we see James Cole in a variety of settings and years, we are shown multiple sides of his personality, some more confusing than others. Whether he’s a free man, a prisoner, or a patient at the mental hospital, we are never quite sure which Cole to trust. Willis plays his multifaceted character to perfection, embodying our schizophrenic nature and broadening the definition of “insane.”
6 Shutter Island (2010)
Disguised as a thriller, Shutter Island is a film about repression, trauma and the experience of unfathomable sadness that can lead to insanity. Replete with the Hans Zimmer-esque foghorn that bwomps throughout the film, Shutter Island offers a compelling ride that you may be hesitant to repeat. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads an investigation on the disappearance of Rachel Solando at the Shutter Island psychiatric facility. Daniels is hell bent to find answers, and anyone who questions his motives will be swiftly attacked: sagacious and white-haired German doctors must be Nazis, gaunt inmates putting their finger to their mouths must have secrets, and to Daniels, anyone other than his investigative partner, Chuck Aule (played by Mark Ruffalo), is automatically in on the secret of Solando’s disappearance.
He’s right. They’re all in on the secret, but it’s not the one Teddy Daniels suspected. Without ruining a truly disorienting twist, know that Director Martin Scorsese’s final frames leave audiences with a numbing suspicion that resonates long after the credits roll.
5 The Silver Linings Playbook (2013)
The opening shot of Silver Linings Playbook puts the audience in the middle of Pat Solitano’s mind and the center of his Maryland-based mental institution (Why does Maryland have all these institutions?). He imploded after finding his wife in the shower with another man and compounded his misery by pummeling the lothario to a bloody pulp. When we first meet Pat (played to perfection by Bradley Cooper), he is on the last day of his eight-month court-ordered stint, and on the first day of his new whirlwind life. Pat has a cause: to rekindle the flames with his estranged wife. He wants so fervently to prove his sanity that he becomes manic in doing so, bringing a family fight to fisticuffs that almost lands him back in the loony bin. It doesn’t take long for the bipolar and stormy Solitano to cross paths with a hurricane in the form of Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence, in her Academy Award winning role). At first, they spur each other into fits of aggravation, but by the film’s end, they neutralize each other and eventually learn to love each other.
David O. Russell’s film makes a heartwarming argument that mental illnesses can be treated with love, affection and understanding. The road to the film’s satisfying conclusion is as rocky as Pat and Tiffany’s outrageous dance number, but their journey to get there makes Silver Linings Playbook eminently watchable. Russell has just teamed up with Cooper and Lawrence yet again, in their upcoming film Joy.
Silver Linings Playbook reminds audiences that when our backs are against the wall and we have something to prove, we can seem just as crazy as those in the sanitarium. Thanks to family and perceptive minds like Tiffany Maxwell, Pat Solitano came back to reality and saw the life in front of him was the one he always wanted to live.
4 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
If this comes as a surprise, then maybe you also belong in a sanitarium. Without this film, it be would a struggle to truly define the “Mental Asylum” genre as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has done. Along with his work in Chinatown, Batman, and The Shining, R.P. McMurphy will likely be remembered as one of Jack Nicholson’s most career-defining characters.
The contrast of seeing a fully functional smart-aleck in a nuthouse makes director Milos Forman’s movie an absolute delight. Perhaps that word is too light, considering the movie also won the top five Academy Awards in 1976. With one of the greatest villains in film history and a supporting cast that included Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a truly hallmark film. R.I.P. R.P. McMurphy.
3 Bronson (2008)
Charles Bronson (nee Michael Gordon Peterson) has lived in solitary confinement for most of his life. In Bronson, Tom Hardy dramatizes that fact to frightening lengths. The megalomaniacal behavior Bronson exhibits in Nicolas Winding Refn’s biopic is so absurd that you’re left hoping Mr. Hardy didn’t go equally insane on set. Yet, in tandem with the heavy doses of nudity, the depressing Pet Shop Boys dance of the dummies scene, and the generally schizophrenic brilliance of Hardy’s performance, Bronson maintains a darkly comic edge throughout.
Whether locked up alone or serving tea to the staff at the mental institution, Bronson finds a way to entertain himself in every situation. His madness is self-perpetuating, and therefore, limitless. The audience knows that Bronson deserves his punishment, but despite all his machinations, we still hope he’ll drop the “in” off the “sanity.”
2 Don Juan DeMarco (1994)
Johnny Depp’s commercial success has grossly overshadowed some of his best work, including that in Don Juan DeMarco. As the titular character, Depp spends ten days in a mental institution under the purview of psychiatrist Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando, at the height of his experimental acting career). DeMarco, whose real name is John Arnold, remains convinced his true identity is Don Juan, lover to over a thousand women.
DeMarco is clinically insane, but his beliefs are so deeply held that he puts a spell on the nurses and subtly encourages Mickler to rekindle the flame with his lusty wife (Faye Dunaway). If love itself is a form of insanity, then perhaps Johnny Depp’s character should get a pass.
1 Frances (1982)
True originality can be destructive. Musicians in the 27 Club are a great example, along with mavericks of any industry who self destructed under the pressures of fame and fortune. Then there are actors: people who study, or purport to study the human condition. What a novel idea! They have a license to “live the lives of others,” and damn the torpedoes if you think they do it in a weird way.
Just look at Frances Farmer, the semi-famous subject of Graeme Clifford’s 1982 biopic. From the beginning, Frances (Jessica Lange in her Oscar-nominated performance) exhibited true eccentricity, refusing to wear make-up on camera or do anything she felt was a Hollywood stunt. This sort of saltiness garnered her significant opportunities both on stage and screen, but after an affair, discord with her demanding mother and a growing dependence on amphetamines, Farmer found herself institutionalized at multiple sanitariums, the last of which "treated" her with electroshock therapy and a subsequent lobotomy.
While much of the film’s plot has been brought into question, those who watch the film are left wondering how many stars of Golden Age of Hollywood wound up being given science’s most primitive form of medicine.
There’s our ten! What’s your favorite film or scene that takes place in a mental institution? Let us know in the comments!
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