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Here’s a question: if you have a nervous breakdown, take a bottle of Aspirin and wash it down with vodka, is that to relieve a headache or end your life? For 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder), she says the former but her family and doctor aren’t convinced and they arrange for her to be sent to Claymoore psychiatric hospital, an upscale hospital where she should commit herself for therapy. She goes, reluctantly, and signs the forms, taken on a tour of the place, and given a room whom she shares with a mousy young woman named Georgina (Clea DuVall), who is a pathological liar obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. She also meets Daisy (Brittany Murphy), an antisocial girl who is scared to leave her room, Janet (Angela Bettis), a ballerina who refuses to eat, and Cynthia (Jillian Armenante), a slightly disturbed lesbian. But of all the women receiving care at Claymoore, it is Lisa (Angelina Jolie-Pitt), a reckless girl with a powerful rebellious streak that most captures Susanna’s attention. She influences Susanna to avoid taking medication and ignore the help of the doctors and nurses. Her callous, aggressive attitude keeps her in continuous trouble with the staff, often to where she is forcibly given medication and placed in a padded room. One would think that would solve that problem. One would be wrong.
Directed by James Mangold and based on the book of the same title by Susanna Kaysen, which itself chronicles the author’s own time in a mental health facility, the film is told with frequent, episodic flashbacks that are provoked by sounds and actions that mirror the past. That sounds like a solid plan for storytelling, but Girl, Interrupted aims to be more than it is. The usually very good Ryder is a little out of her element, and while she has some good scenes when she is playing it soft, she can’t bring the necessary power some important moments require. For example, when the very well-cast Whoopi Goldberg, who is woefully underused, dumps Susanna in a tub of cold water to shock her “awake” from her self-defeating, self-imposed state of exile, what should have been a terrific moment of revelation is stilted and awkward as Ryder can’t find the right tone. More frustrating are the brief moments with Dr. Sonia Wick (Vanessa Redgrave), the hospital psychiatrist, that try to have Good Will Hunting moments but are somehow left hollow. Even worse is a forced connection between Susanna’s option to be free of it all and The Wizard of Oz‘s Dorothy being able to go home anytime she wished. Ryder again can’t seem to express the torment this character should be feeling and leaves this viewer unsatisfied.
Then there’s Jolie-Pitt, who won a well-deserved Oscar as the always angry, embittered sociopath, Lisa. She is a caged sick tiger in a zoo run by mindless factory workers. Their solution is to keep her boxed up and tranquilized, perhaps hoping she’ll just fade away. Jolie-Pitt carries the film with her dead-to-the-world attitude and bombastic fight against authority. She’s stripped of feelings and sees people as toys to manipulate, even to their end, which has no affect on her. Of course, her story is tragic and we are meant to love and hate her, which we do, and her fate and last words to Susanna are heartbreaking. She is the heart of the film and provides much, if not all of the emotional weight. She’s a marvel to watch, a raging fire in a barren field.
There are other issues though, such as the needless narration bits, which are meant to be excerpts from the journal that Susanna is keeping but are often cliche and vapid attempts as philosophy. The film is clearly imitating or attempting homage to Milos Forman‘s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but doesn’t have the sense of irony and tragedy that McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has, never giving Susanna the impact that she should, preferring to consistently play it safe. And that’s the problem with the whole film, except for Jolie-Pitt, who seems to be going places no one else in the film dared go, Girl, Interrupted feels like a lost opportunity. Still, like every movie, it has one great moment.
Susanna and Lisa become tenuous friends inside Claymoore, with Susanna watching from the sidelines as Lisa rules the roost, aggressively making herself the rebel with the patients and staff. This in a girl with some serious upt in her interrupted. She uses all sorts of trickery and even her body (regularly bedding orderlies) to keep her place and seemingly control the ward. All of that with a swagger in her hips and wink in the eye. She has plans, this girl. And sure enough, one night, she and Susanna break out of the hospital and decide to make a run for Florida because why not. Along the way, they take a stop at a former patient’s house. Susanna think it’s for rest. Lisa, has other designs.
Daisy (Brittany Murphy) is not a strong person. Agoraphobic, timid and suffering from an eating disorder, she is barely hanging on but trying to make a show of it in her new life. Antagonized but well-protected in the hospital ward, here on the outside, in her pristine picture-book middle-American home, she becomes a bright shiny target for the vicious, manipulative Lisa, even if she is staying under her roof. Feeling more close with Susanna, Daisy agrees to let them stay but requests that they leave first thing in the morning. Susanna agrees and opens the sofa-bed and attempts to sleep while Daisy and Lisa have words. Lisa picks the fight, of course, because that’s what predators do. She wants to understand the “new” Daisy who Lisa thinks is playing house but is just a breath away from slicing her wrists. That it’s so obvious is like dangling a mewing baby antelope in from of a starving safari lion. Lisa pokes at her prey, suggesting that Daisy is having an incestuous relationship with her own father. This angers Susanna, sensing what is happening, but doesn’t put her own hand in the fight, less be bitten herself. But when Daisy proudly claims that Lisa is only jealous because she has a real life, implying that Lisa is nothing but a runaway sicko, Lisa lunges from the reeds.
She bitterly accounts the fact that everyone knows Daisy is a fraud, that the hospital didn’t release her because she was cured but because they gave up, and that this house is just window dressing because she is still on meds and the warden still makes regular ‘visits’ that everyone knows he is only for sex. But more importantly, Daisy likes it. It’s a devastating attack and mortally wounds the already shaken Daisy. That’s its real effect won’t be known until the following morning makes it all the more powerful. This is a victory that Lisa will savor.
What’s great about this moment is how well Jolie commands the scene. Flung into wooden chair, she sits like a man, spread-eagled, pushed back so she teeters on the chairs back legs. She, as mentioned, is like a coiled cat, sinewy and sharp toothed. When she’s ready, she springs forward, the chair dropping to all fours and her body leaning straight at Daisy. This is where Lisa excels and where she knows she makes the most impact: hurting others and seeing how deep her words can cut. It’s what she craves, like the proverbial cat with a doomed mouse, playing with it before devouring it. Jolie doesn’t let the situation overcome her either, which could easily have happened. She reigns it in perfectly, never bombastic or scathing, just icy enough to make it sting. This is a dark, dangerous woman, and here, while we’ve come to have sympathy for her, it all changes and we realize Lisa is a truly damaged girl. It’s a great moment.
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Susanna Kaysen (book), James Mangold(screenplay)
Stars: Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Whoopie Goldberg, Angela Bettis