'That Way Madness Lies': Film Review

Searingly personal.
12/14/2018

Sandra Luckow's documentary provides an intimate chronicle of her brother's struggle with mental illness and the toll it took on his family.

The ravages of mental illness, and the toll it takes on both the sufferer and family members, have rarely been presented as vividly as they are in Sandra Luckow's documentary. A highly personal portrait of her brother Duanne, who began exhibiting signs of schizophrenia in his mid-40s (the condition usually manifests itself much earlier), That Way Madness Lies delivers an unblinking assessment of the failures of the health, judicial and penal systems to effectively address what is a growing national problem.

Luckow (best known for her 1986 student documentary Sharp Edges, about the teenage Tonya Harding) came to her love of filmmaking thanks to her slightly older brother, who obsessively started making short films and taking photographs as a teenager. Duanne later joined his father's business restoring antique classic cars, but he never lost his love of filmmaking. The documentary includes numerous clips from iPhone video diaries that he began shooting as his condition took hold. They provide an uncommonly up-close-and-personal depiction of the debilitating effects of mental illness.

His elderly parents and sister inevitably got swept up in the ensuing turmoil, suffering both emotionally and financially. Duanne fell victim to a Nigerian Internet scam, losing thousands of dollars, with Sandra eventually becoming his conservator. He was involuntarily committed to mental hospitals, ironically including two with cinematic connections: Oregon State Hospital, where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was shot, and Western State Hospital in Tacoma, Wash., where movie star Frances Farmer was confined for three months in 1944.

While some of Duanne's behavior was simply bizarre, such as his secret marriage to a woman 30 years his senior, there were other occasions when it became much more dangerous. He began making death threats to his sister and terrorist threats to various institutions. He dropped out of society for long periods at a time and was frequently homeless. He consistently refused treatment and went into hiding when he wasn't institutionalized. He didn't go to see his mother when she was on life support and near death, thinking that it was a conspiratorial ruse to capture him. 

Luckow, who narrates the proceedings, chronicles these tragic and horrifying events with a mixture of dispassion and emotion, laying bare the personal turmoil she and her parents suffered and displaying compassion for her troubled brother. She also methodically examines the ways in which the system failed her brother and, by extension, the many others in our society suffering from similar conditions.

The documentary includes interviews with several of Duanne's friends and colleagues who discuss his descent into madness (the title is inspired by a line from King Lear). One of the more darkly humorous comments comes from an elderly male associate who claims that Duanne's "dementia" must have come about because of his bachelorhood.

Although occasionally too rough-hewn and scattershot, That Way Madness Lies proves to be a powerful true-life tale that will surely strike a chord with viewers, especially those familiar with similar tragic situations.

Distributor: First Run Features
Director-producer: Sandra Luckow
Screenwriters: Sandra Luckow, Anne Alvergue
Executive producers: Abigail Disney, Geryalyn Dreyfous, Regina K. Scully
Directors of photography: Sandra Luckow, Duanne Luckow
Music: Michael Bacon
Editor: Anne Alvergue

101 minutes