Mind Over Mind.
BRAIN ON FIRE recounts a true tale of terror – journalist Susannah Cahalan’s battle against Anti-NMDA-Receptor AutoImmune Encephalitis; when your body’s immune system attacks your brain. What a thing! One might be inclined to say, That’s insane! Doesn’t your brain control your immune system? An attack on the citadel by its own populace!
It’s unfortunate that such a meaningful story should be told in movie format, as per a thriller mystery, with no one identifying the disease until very late in the game, Susannah’s bouts of disconnectivity, numbness, euphoria, paranoia, and grand mal seizures attributed to myriad incorrect ailments. It just seems silly to beat around the bush for the sake of dramatic arc.
I feel that if writer-director Gerard Barrett had to conform to movie format, this particular subject matter would be better served if it was structured non-chronologically, where we start with the diagnosis, and then flashback for how Susannah arrived at that point. Movie actually does conform to this format, but in a “thriller” manner, by having Susannah wake up in a hospital bed and discover she is strapped to it. During her desperate cries for help, we flashback. There is no diagnosis, no realization of why she is here, so we are experiencing the dark journey through her eyes. Commendable though this technique may be, we should probably have seen this through the eyes of an onlooker to remove that Hollywood taint.
Chloe Grace Moretz plays 21-year-old Susannah (she was 24 when her month-long ordeal started – I don’t know why the filmmakers would change such a non-crucial detail), working at her “dream job” – the New York Post – with a new boyfriend, and her prospects looking up. She starts experiencing periods of staring blankly, zoning out, which quickly graduate to all the symptoms that doctors summarily diagnose as “too much partying,” because they can find nothing wrong with her MRI tests. (Maybe if they actually put her in an MRI machine, they’d find something – as it is, they keep telling her she’s getting Magnetic Resonance Imaging while putting her in a CT Scan machine. Typical movie liberty for no reason at all other than to annoy me.)
Dr. Samson (Vincent Gale), Dr. Khan (Agam Darshi) and others keep incorrectly diagnosing schizoid and psychopathic fallbacks, and pushing for Susannah’s parents to consider mental asylums, which they vehemently oppose. Richard Armitage (who can’t stop looking like Hugh Jackman) is Susannah’s father Tom, and Carrie-Anne Moss (forever Trinity) is mother Rhona; a separated couple, they cleave together poignantly and insist that there is another explanation, to the doctors’ chagrin. Thomas Mann is Stephen, the dorky musician boyfriend, who amazingly stuck by Susannah through her ordeal (well, he’s a 4, she’s a 9 – why wouldn’t he?), and probably never guessed that his angsty songwriting career would hit such a motherlode of material…
Movie portrays Dr. Khan as visiting an old mentor of hers, Dr. Souhel Najjar (Navid Negahban), for further insight into this case she cannot solve, and it is he who diagnoses Susannah correctly, by asking her to draw a clock face, which she does, with all the numbers on one side – which clued Najjar to the disconnect in the right hemisphere of her brain. (I hate the scene where Khan approaches Najjar – it’s that old trope of a mentor giving a lecture, all the students filing out, and a lone person (Khan) remaining seated, Najjar noticing Khan and asking, “To what do I owe, etc.” and Khan – without even greeting Najjar – just running through a list of symptoms; then the trope of the mentor declining what we know is an offer that piques his interest, until the student insists; next scene is the mentor entering the patient’s room… Again, Hollywood writes it this way because it’s a dramatic trope, which is completely unnecessary in a true story, where Najjar could have had an original entrance into the tale, rather than the superhero entrance after the mortals have failed. One wonders what decision Susannah’s parents might have been forced to make had Najjar not randomly appeared on the scene. But I’m sure it was their determined seeking of rational opinions that brought Najjar onboard, not the chance connection portrayed here. So though the movie scores with the fact it is dealing with this subject matter, it annoys with its clichéd approach.
Except for a few moments of cringey opening bars that illustrates the camaraderie in Susannah’s office (featuring Jenny Slate as Susannah’s empathetic journo buds and Tyler Perry as her editor, with a beard so neat it looks painted on), BRAIN ON FIRE is performed well, not straying too far into overacting or movie-acting in place of realistic reactions. Still, with the tense trailers falsely advertising the horror/thriller component, I’m sure horror buffs were turned off when they discovered (maybe after purchasing a ticket) it was not about a teen being haunted by an unseen entity, but a young woman in the throes of a very real brain disease.
The other distraction is Chloe Grace Moretz herself. At least for me. When I gaze on her breathtaking beauty, my brain isn’t on fire, my groin is. So that aspect colors every adverse emotion I should be feeling toward her character. And when Chloe is in the hospital gown and running away from camera in slomo, all I can think of is, “Hmm, since when do they make hospital gowns that close in the back?!” (Another liberty taken for the sake of PG-13.) And when Chloe goes into a very realistic spasming seizure, I just want to lie on top of her and hold her down. Naked.
Susannah’s ordeal began in 2009 and lasted about a month before it was diagnosed correctly and given the correct treatment. Her condition devolved to complete catalepsy (rigidness of the body, a trance-like state), resulting in her requiring therapy to “learn” how to walk, move and speak again. Barrett screenplays from her book, Brain On Fire: My Month Of Madness, published 2012.
Not taking anything away from Susannah’s misery, but there is scant focus on the doctors involved and the medical system itself. Firstly, she must have had some dynamite health insurance (either from her employer or parents) because if all it took was a month from the first manifestation of her symptoms to the correct treatment and therapy, there’s some Harry Potter magic going on here somewhere!
Final title cards tell us Susannah was only the 217th person diagnosed with Anti-NMDA-Receptor Encephalitis. “Her memoir has helped people all over the world find proper treatment.”
And what of all those unfortunate people with conditions like Susannah’s but not with the luxury of medical insurance like Susannah’s? How many through history have been diagnosed incorrectly as bi-polar, schizophrenic, psychopathic, or simply – possessed?
We do feel a little of the frustration that Chris Rock speaks of in BIGGER AND BLACKER – that if you really get sick, “doctors don’t got shit for you!” It’s not that medical science cannot advance to a level that will truly benefit Mankind – it is being STULTIFIED by Mankind itself. If it weren’t for avaricious pharmaceutical companies, egotistical surgeons, self-centered politicians and the innate indecency of the human species, medical science would be so far advanced that Stephen Hawking could have walked. And with that save, we would have had a true Theory Of Everything, with all the time Hawking could have devoted to that theorem, rather than trying to stay barely alive. And with a Theory of Everything, Mankind would have wanted for nothing!
See? We’re not so different from the brain attacking itself. Maybe the brain learned this duplicity – from us…?