Review: “Brain on Fire” #richardarmitage (Toronto trip part 1)
[I was privileged to see the film on Saturday afternoon at 1:30, with fellow fan Babette — who I am outing in case she wants to leave her impressions in the comments as well. I will write this in in three pieces — a general review; a discussion of Richard Armitage; and other impressions. These posts are based on notes I took during the film; a half hour right after the showing taken to jot down impressions; and, of course, twelve hours on the road yesterday to think about it. I have not paused to read any review that I hadn’t seen before I left, so I may repeat some information you already know. I’m incorporating paraphrases of things that director Gerard Barrett said in the Q&A afterwards into this portion of my comments.]
[ETA: typos and syntax. Sigh.]
It’s hard to know how to review a film like this. I have my own allegiance(s) — to frankness and also to Richard Armitage, so I’m hardly non-partisan. It’s also unpleasant to criticize a film that adapts a book written by a survivor of a frightening illness — anything I say that’s not unreservedly positive makes it sound like I’m denigrating Susannah Cahalan’s experiences and struggle or the way her family fought for her. (As you know I didn’t care for the book, and as many of the book’s problems carry over into the film, let me preface this piece by nothing that I have nothing but respect for the victims of this disease and their families.) Summing up: this post reviews the film solely as a work of art.
— Gerard Barrett (@gerardbarrett) September 17, 2016
Babette and I saw the film in a large theater (ca. 1,500 seats) — I didn’t look into the mezzanine, but I would say that the floor was about 90 percent full. Babette was a great guide and got us into line about forty-five minutes before the showing, and were in the first 150 or so people to enter, but the line was long behind us despite the constant rain the whole time we were in line. So there was a lot of interest. Judging from the questions after the showing, the vast majority of the audience had either read the book or had some kind of interest (personal, professional) in the disease. Some people seemed to be interested in Gerard Barrett (the director) more specifically. I didn’t overhear anyone who sounded specifically like an Armitage fan, nor did I see large groups of people who were like to have been fans of Moretz (although the ticket price and the setting may have meant some of her target audience was excluded by circumstance). The later audience segment is important, and it is a bit concerning that they were not present.
My impression was that the audience enjoyed the film and the camaraderie of the festival, despite the damp wait. I meant what I said when I remarked earlier that it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d read. And yet the film is problematic. I think the standing ovation Barrett describes was given for Cahalan, her story, and the way she overcame her troubles, not the film itself. I’ll skip the recap that customarily goes in a review like this because the story is not complex; most of us are familiar with it; and the film is strikingly faithful to the first two-thirds of the book. It drastically truncates Cahalan’s recovery, but Barrett implied that one possibility is the audience will turn to the book to “find out what happened.”
First, however, to its strengths. I think it does extremely effectively what it intends to do (I’ll say more about this below). The intent of the film is clear and all of the scenes contribute to that end. It’s short, tight, taut, without detour. It follows a compact, comprehensible story arc. It has a striking first scene that draws the viewer in. While the first half of the film has its problems, the second half, when Cahalan’s family is drawn into her treatment and the search for her cure, is compelling. Unlike most “disease” stories, it’s not full of disgusting moments (I really appreciated this). It succeeds in creating sympathy for the protagonist; what is happening to Moretz comes across as genuinely worrisome and then disturbing (even if I knew how it ended, so it was not remotely suspenseful for me). Despite a lack of intrusive or even apparent cinematography — I am also bookmarking this question for more discussion — there are some subtle elements of cinematic or artistic interest: for instance, the way that the camera recurs without lingering over particular symbols such as Cahalan’s “flight risk” bracelet in the hospital, or Tom Cahalan’s moleskine notebook. Admittedly it would be helpful if the film indicated more obviously why these elements recur. It has an excellent supporting cast. Apart from Armitage, who has the biggest role of the secondary characters, and about whom I will write more, we could single out the work by Carrie-Ann Moss as Cahalan’s mother, Rhona, who does a great job despite not getting very many lines, and Tyler Perry as Richard, Cahalan’s remarkably understanding boss (who has the name Paul in the book). On the whole, it does quite a bit with its reputedly small budget.
And now the problems, and the reasons why, although the film apparently already has a distributor, I think it will not find its way onto many theater screens. One is that it wasn’t clear to me who should want to see this film, besides the people who came to the film because they were already interested in the disease, because the style of the film excludes some of the typical people one would assume might want to see it.
Brain on Fire occupies an unusual space between the quality of the usual “problem” film made for TV and the greater aspirations of motion pictures intended for the screen. The remarks of the reviews that I have read not withstanding, the film is not really a “weepie” — the film’s performances and cinematography are too sober for that, and while they seek to evoke sympathy for Cahalan, they do not ever seek to evoke tears. Although there are some obvious tropes of the disease film here, they are not penetrating in the way that the are expected to be for the made-for-tv piece, in which a largely female audience is watching for these and enjoying their pathetic execution. The decision not to explore Cahalan’s rehabilitation means that the whole stereotypical “comeback against all odds” theme is eliminated from the film. One exception is the appearance of Souhel Najjar in the role of “intrepid, kind physician as savior,” but given the fact that the real Souhel Najjar is a Syrian-American, played here by a highly-respected Iranian-American actor, Navid Negahban, I can overlook it out of happiness to see such a positive portrayal of and by immigrants. Nor is the film — despite its female lead, and the fact that anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis occurs most frequently in women and people under twenty-one — all that clearly directed at the Moretz’s audience demographic, so it doesn’t fit at all into the genre of “trials and tribulations of a character played by a beloved actress” that teenage girls often enjoy.
The most obvious problem — to put it point blank — is that Chloë Grace Moretz is badly miscast. She has, as Roger Ebert famously wrote of her under other circumstances, “presence and appeal,” but what she has to give is insufficient to fulfill the demands of this role.
First, she is too immature to play Cahalan both physically and in terms of her manner. Moretz was eighteen when she made the film and, apart from her upper lip, looks about sixteen here; she’s playing Cahalan, who was twenty-four when the disease struck. It’s not just that she looks young; it’s that she doesn’t carry herself like a mid-twen, and definitely not one with the requisite poise obtained at an upper-tier, privileged U.S. university (Washington / St. Louis), eager to succeed in her first professional role at her dream job. This insufficiency is particularly obvious in the office scenes, which are in themselves problematic for other reasons. But her colleague and close friend, Margot (named Angela in the book), is played by Jenny Slate, who is fifteen years older than Moretz and looks twice Moretz’s age. On the fundamental level, Moretz does not plausibly appear twenty-four.
The other problem is that Moretz apparently lacks the artistic preparation to portray the active mental illness that the first half or so of the film demands. Much of this is her certainly not her own fault; she was directed by Barrett who, when asked afterwards how he coaxed out Moretz’s “fearless” performance, said, “we trusted each other.” My problem with her portrayal of the altered states of Cahalan’s illness is not so much that it is shrill and monotonous, although it is, and given the film’s goals (more below), this is the only real problem of its first half, which is abated once Cahalan lands in the hospital and her character becomes more dependent on other characters. It’s more that Moretz seems to be aware neither of the inner state of an adult who’s experienced altered consciousness or perceptual difficulties, nor that she seems to have considered how people suffering from mental illness or brain disease or injury look to others from the outside.
Through the scenes that precede Cahalan’s hospitalization, Moretz has one look — a sort of adolescent astonishment — and one style of acting that swings between the poles of wide-eyed “I can’t believe this” grimacing, and shouting, over the top posturing. It makes her look like she has not thought about the inner state of someone in this position nor has she reflected on how it looks from outside (apart, potentially, from the tapes of Cahalan in the hospital). I’m no expert on mental or brain illnesses; however, I do know that people who are experiencing hallucinations or other perceptual problems do not usually escalate to manic states, because they fear that other people will think they are crazy; they are careful to hide their reactions to what they experiencing for that reason. Equally, I’m no expert on manic states, but I know that they are characterized by much more than rapid mood swings, shouting, jumping on furniture and feigned sobbing. Barrett and his cinematographer (Yaron Orbach, who did a season of Orange is the New Black) do have the wisdom not to overwhelm the audience with the stereotypical camera effects that typically characterize tropes of perceptive or cognitive challenges in film. There’s some blurring or rotation to indicate dizziness, but it ends at that, even though the book itself offers multiple descriptions of how Cahalan saw her world as the disease advanced that would have given them chances to experiment. This restraint means the film reads very naturalistically, and (see below) that is a big piece of the intent of its makers, but in order for that narrative strategy to work in a fully convincing way, the object we are observing (Moretz as Cahalan) must itself look believable and present some sort of point of curiosity. Nothing about how Moretz acts as the ill Cahalan leaves anything for the viewer to wonder about.
Moretz’s failure ever to leave us as viewers on the fence about whether Cahalan is ill in turn creates larger problems for the verisimilitude of the film’s basic premises. As a start, neither Babette nor I found it credible that a coworker could behave the way Moretz’s character does in a crowded workplace for several weeks without generating a more negative response. The film’s one notable narrative addition — in a nod to current events, the interview that Cahalan does in the book with John Walsh is changed to one with a character who resembles Anthony Weiner — does not help in this regard; it feels more like a cheap joke than a demonstration of Cahalan’s problems. I think that even at the Post, a paper known for tolerating quite a bit, a reporter would be fired for what Cahalan does in this scene. I am certain that if I decided to sit cross-legged in the middle of a New York subway platform for a long period of time, a few people would at least ask me if I needed help; if I tottered on the edge of one looking disoriented, certainly at least one fellow passenger would alert the MTA. While I am certainly willing to attribute a certain big city callousness to New Yorkers, surely average New Yorkers aren’t quite this cold to odd things that people around them are doing. Yet in contrast to the movie character, the real-life Cahalan persisted in her delusions, paranoia and hallucinations for several weeks without interference, which suggests that her self-presentation was credible enough that people, including those who knew her well, didn’t initially think about it. Indeed, this state of affairs is an integral element of the narrative, in which professional after professional writes off Cahalan’s symptoms as either not significant, not symptomatic of illness, or else a typical emotional or medical problem rather than a rare auto-immune disease.
I could say more about Moretz’s performance and its collateral effects on the whole film, but I’ll stop. It sounds like Moretz is evaluating her professional future at the moment, anyway; I would propose that she needs some formal dramatic education if she wishes to continue in film roles of this depth.
So if I’m this critical of Moretz’s performance, why am I relatively sanguine about the film’s future? Most of it relates to Barrett’s statements in the Q&A. As a side note — I often found myself smiling at his Irish-accented English. He kept saying “fillum” for “film,” “tings” for “things,” and “thrace” for “trace.” And there was one really cute moment where he said “Jaysus.”
I learned this morning that Barrett wrote the screenplay (previously I thought he had stuck with a screenplay given to him by Charlize Theron). That discoverywas admittedly a bit disappointing. Still, to me, almost everything about this film is explained by statements Barrett made in response to audience questions at the end of the showing. To wit (paraphrasing from notes):
- His involvement was truly last minute — about only four months from being contacted to shooting it; they did only three weeks of prep; they did practically no rehearsal of any scenes; and they shot it in sixteen days in Vancouver and one day in NYC;
- There was little experimentation while shooting, and practically everything from the shoot made it into the film; the goal was an adaptation of the book that presented its most relatable moments;
- Because the film needed to be accessible, he decided not to “hijack it with his creative vision” (direct quote);
- In making the film — which he felt was important, that it was a movie that needed to be made — he “put aside the evolution of [his] directorial career” and decided the film didn’t need any “point-of-view bullshit”;
- He intentionally did not want to revisit the question of how illness in general is portrayed on film;
- He felt that they did make filmic sacrifices in order to make sure the film was understandable.
His comments more or less overrode my initial reaction that the first half of the film should have been written entirely differently. Since we know that Cahalan doesn’t remember most of these events herself anyway, I would have suggested a more perspectival emphasis on who noted what about Cahalan’s behavior when — something grittier that asks more questions about perception itself, possibly incorporation of more of the closed circuit video material — although this approach potentially could have required an even greater amount of performance flexibility from Moretz, which admittedly I do not think she has. Barrett must have known that Theron would try to attach a very high profile young actor to the project for publicity reasons (initially, it was Dakota Fanning), and that he wouldn’t be able to count on directing someone with extensive dramatic training or have any time to get the actors to acclimate to each other.
In other words, since Barrett didn’t intend the film to reflect on him as an auteur, and it is definitely not a made-for-tv weepie, Barrett’s remarks make it clear that Brain on Fire is definitely a “message” film. Barrett stated over and over again that the point of the film is to be “accessible” and that viewers should be able to see it and ask doctors if a sick relative has anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. He referred to the case of a hospitalized patient in the UK known to him right now in which the family is trying to persuade the treating doctors to explore this diagnosis. He asserted that people needed to see what the symptoms of the ailment are clearly and simply, and to understand that the doctor must start by applying the correct diagnostic tool (the “draw a clock” test — that coincidentally, those who watched the first season of Hannibal saw Will Graham perform — I wondered if the scriptwriters had read the book).
Barrett stated that he and Theron are determined that the film will achieve worldwide distribution. Given that there are several foundations and non-profits now concerned with the issue / message of the film, it seems that there will be many semi-public screenings for the issue of awareness raising (no matter what). While it may not go straight to television, there is no question in mind that it will eventually get there, and also that the people involved will not let the film rot in a can but will eventually enable streaming. For Cahalan, Theron and Barrett there seems to be too much at stake on the level of the issue simply to let go of it, and Cahalan has proved that she has not only the energy to recover from a frightening disease, but also to write a book and get the book turned into a film.
The makers are going to have to protect the interests of their investors, first, and they will definitely go the traditional route. But I don’t think they are likely to be deterred by the usual obstacles. And the film is of a quality that it will sustain distribution. It is not artistic. It was cast with the wrong lead (albeit it with good intentions of increasing audience). But it is clear and coherent, a story powerful enough to affect the viewer without degenerating into pathos.
[OK. 3200 words. I still have detailed notes about Armitage. I need to have lunch and watch my nieces’ volleyball games but look for installment two, focusing on Armitage, this evening.]