'Crazy, Not Insane': Film Review | Venice 2020

Crazy Not Insane
Venice Film Festival

Dorothy Lewis

American horror stories: crime and punishment.

Examining the work of forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, Alex Gibney's documentary delves into the question of why we kill.

The day before Ted Bundy's execution, at his request he spoke with psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, an expert witness for his defense, for more than four hours. Of all the professionals he'd dealt with in the three and a half years since his arrest, he felt that she was the one who was interested in the why rather than the how of his murderous deeds. Now a spry octogenarian, Lewis is the compelling subject of Crazy, Not Insane, the latest documentary from the prolific Alex Gibney. An urgent film, it's filled with chilling detail and propelled by clear-eyed compassion.

Toward the end of the doc Gibney captures Lewis, a born detective, digging out the packed-away audiocassettes from her death row conversation with Bundy, clearly restless and unsettled about that case. Bundy's story is one that she's still trying to "get right," but he's only one of the many murderers Lewis has gotten to know through her work — 22 serial killers and many more "plain old" killers, as she puts it with a touch of the humor that must be a necessity in her line of work. It's work that has been influential but often finds her swimming against the tide of a skeptical psychiatric community and an American criminal justice system that tends to equate justice with revenge. Having devoted decades to understanding the formative experiences and brain chemistry of homicidal offenders, Lewis has concluded that murderers are made, not born.

Since 2005's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney has been one of our foremost questioners of conventional wisdom and official stories, employing methodical research and potent filmmaking. Here he uses a visually dynamic and expressive mix of new and archival footage, home movies and animation, at times conjuring subliminal states. Most haunting are Lewis' research videos of patients and inmates. Her material is inherently gruesome, and Gibney's film looks head-on at some very dark places. But as disturbing as the movie can be, there's so much illuminating intelligence at work that it never feels oppressive.

The director includes glimpses of Lewis' personal life that are endearing but utterly unsentimental: the writerly clutter of a work-in-progress; brief interactions with her daughter and her son, who types her handwritten manuscript pages — excerpts of which are read by Laura Dern in voiceover; the studio art classes she takes in life drawing; her hairless and contented cat. Lewis comes across as thoughtful, tough-minded and likable, driven by a boundless curiosity that looks beyond simplistic and puritanical notions of good and evil (cue the clip of her appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show).

Early in her career, and much to her surprise, Lewis became an expert in dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder). It was an unfashionable diagnosis, often derided as a bogus defense or something implanted in the patient by a doctor's leading questions. She was scoffed at by fellow psychiatrists and, in one of her first experiences as an expert witness in a high-profile trial, ridiculed not just by the prosecutor but by local disc jockeys. Gibney interviews another forensic psychiatrist, Park Dietz, who was often on the opposite side of the courtroom from Lewis and to this day maintains that dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a "hoax."

But Lewis, working with children at first and then with adult criminal defendants, uncovered a pattern among homicidal people, a combination of physical or chemical brain damage and childhood abuse, one often caused by the other. The horrendous details of the trauma many of them suffered are almost always revealed to her by "alters," as Lewis calls their alternate personalities. They often have different voices and bearings from the main personality, sometimes a different gender and even different handwriting, and they arise to protect the person from monstrous memories and defend them against a hostile world. "He needed someone to take pain," one alter says of the viciously abused child he's protected for years. A man whose torso is covered in scars inflicted by his parents has several alternate personalities, one of whom tells the good doctor, "I'm the only one that ever cared."

All this is beyond heart-wrenching, the depths of sadism that some people endure — until they break — beyond comprehension. Lewis' interview skills are warm and engaging, not only with children and inmates but also in the footage of her conversation with another kind of killer, a freelance (and apparently very busy) executioner. (Her longtime colleague Catherine Yeager, interviewed for the film, shot the footage of the astounding encounter.) For cases without video recordings, Gibney uses evocative black-and-white animation that has a raw, sketch-like quality and whose figures don't move in the ordinary sense but pulsate, as if with nervous energy. At one crucial moment, they morph into Rorschach inkblots.

While the psychiatric establishment generally came around to accept the reality of DID, the justice system hasn't quite caught up. Beyond this, the legal definitions of competence and sanity don't jibe with psychiatric standards, and there's a direct conflict between the so-called aggravating and mitigating factors that juries are asked to weigh. Lewis points to the troubling example of brain-damaged Arkansas death row inmate Ricky Ray Rector, who, despite evidence of mental incapacity, was deemed sane enough to be executed, meaning that he understood what was about to happen to him. Rector put aside the dessert from his final meal, intending to enjoy it later.

Archival footage shows Gov. Bill Clinton, then a candidate for president, taking a kind of victory lap after denying Rector's final appeals for clemency. As to the specifically American politics of crime and punishment, Gibney provides apt reminders of the tough-on-crime fervor of the '90s, even among leading Democrats (the Clintons, Joe Biden and Dianne Feinstein). Bringing this urgent matter to the present day, Lewis is understandably dispirited by Attorney General William Barr's gung-ho embrace of the federal death penalty, until now rarely used.

Crazy, Not Insane includes scenes of crowds celebrating executions, Bundy's included, and you might be reminded of the monster-chasing mob of villagers in James Whale's Frankenstein — or, as Gibney suggests, of witch-burning. Lewis doesn't deny how dangerous many of her subjects are or suggest that they should simply be let free. At the heart of her work is the conviction that capital punishment is not a deterrent but simply a state-sanctioned form of premeditated killing (a concept indelibly expressed in Krzysztof Kieslowski's narrative feature A Short Film About Killing). Why, she asks, can't we try to learn more about these profoundly damaged people, as her life's work demonstrates is possible? Why can't we focus on preventing the circumstances that created them, instead of simply destroying them? Why can't we be more humane?

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Production company: Jigsaw
Narrator: Laura Dern
Director: Alex Gibney
Producers: Erin Edeiken, Alex Gibney, Joey Marra, Ophelia Harutyunyan
Executive producers: Maiken Baird, Stacey Offman, Richard Perello
Director of photography: Ben Bloodwell
Editor: Andy Grieve
Music: Will Bates

118 minutes