Updated June 13, 2023
Schizophrenia is a condition that’s widely misunderstood. First, schizophrenia itself is an umbrella term and there are many types of the disorder, including disorganized, residual and undifferentiated. Additionally, schizophrenia presents differently in men versus women and children versus adults.
Of course, these significant differences aren’t always captured by Hollywood. Instead, films and television programs tend to portray an overly simplified character with schizophrenia without showing the complexities of the condition and its impact. Luckily, some movies have done this mental health condition some justice with an accurate and in-depth portrayal. Here are five movies with characters with schizophrenia that offer accurate depictions of the condition.
1. A Beautiful Mind
When you mention movies with schizophrenia, for most people, the first film that comes to mind is A Beautiful Mind. The movie is based on the real-life story of American mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash. What you may also have heard it is that it is an extremely inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia. There are many issues with the way this film handles the experience of schizophrenia, for the sake of storytelling, but with that being said, due to it’s popularity, there are aspects of it that are accurate.
While a graduate student at Princeton University, Nash begins to develop symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. He has hallucinations about three people in his life and believes he’s working on a secret plot against the Soviets. A doctor tries to medicate Nash, but he eventually relapses and puts his wife and child in danger. When the movie wraps up, Nash’s wife is supporting his decision to stay off medication. Nash is living a productive life by living with his hallucinations while acknowledging they are not real.
When it comes to stories of schizophrenia, John Nash’s story is an excellent portrayal of how the condition can devolve and impact close family members. Most problematic is the portrayal of schizophrenia as having fully realized personalities that you are interacting with. Furthermore, some mental health experts don’t approve of the film ending with Nash being unmedicated, worrying that it’ll encourage others to do the same.
For the sake of narrative, the audience is presented full-fledged characters that John is interacting and talking with. the audience is told later that these were manifestations of his schizophrenia. The danger in this is that the audience may come away thinking this is schizophrenia, schizophrenia must include imagining people. This is not the case at all. Many schizophrenics suffer from delusions and fixations that you are being followed or harassed that can encourage conspiratorial thinking. Hallucinations from schizophrenia are most commonly voices, that the schizophrenic can believe are divine. What would be extremely uncommon is to have multiple people in your life that you do not realize are imagined.
Interestingly, real-life Nash said the movie showed him relying on medication longer than he really did. He also said he believed psychotropic drugs are overrated. Still, it’s important to note that the idea of just ignoring your schizophrenia symptoms, as portrayed in the movie, isn’t a medically supported treatment plan.
2. Savage Grace
Another exceptional portrayal of schizophrenia in movies is seen in Savage Grace. This 2007 drama features Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane and Hugh Dancy. The film is based on the book by the same name and tells the story of famous socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland. Barbara was murdered by her son, Antony Baekeland, who is said to have had schizophrenia.
The story goes that when Antony was young, he displayed erratic behavior aligned with paranoid schizophrenia. While he was officially diagnosed with the condition, his family was too embarrassed to allow him to get psychological help. Antony and his mother had an intense relationship that had many problems. It’s alleged that Antony was gay or bisexual and his mother wanted to “fix” him. She hired prostitutes for him, interfered in his relationships and allegedly raped him.
The movie Savage Grace follows Antony’s life from youth to adulthood and the moment he killed his mother. It’s a vivid look into how wrong things can go when people aren’t given the help they need.
3. Benny and Joon
Out of all the films about schizophrenia, Benny and Joon is probably one of the most subtle depictions of the condition. Although Joon is never openly said to have schizophrenia in the film, there are multiple clues to indicate she has undifferentiated schizophrenia.
Benny takes care of his sister Joon and helps her navigate any problems she runs into. The film shows the caretaker role some family members may have to take with schizophrenic individuals, discusses medication and portrays the ups and downs of the condition. Most importantly, it shows the independence and functionality someone with schizophrenia can have when they’re on the proper medication.
4. The Soloist
The Soloist is another movie based on a true story of schizophrenia, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. The film tells the story of musician Nathaniel Ayers, who was a talented double bassist. He was accepted into the Juilliard School but suffered a mental breakdown in his second year. Ayers was institutionalized and after being released, lived with his mother. He received electroconvulsive therapy for many years and ended up homeless after his mother died.
In The Soloist, an LA Times journalist meets Ayers as a homeless man playing music on the streets. His music is so beautiful that it captures the journalist’s interest, and he begins getting to know Ayers’ story. The journalist learns about those who’ve tried to help Ayers and how systems have failed him. The Soloist is an excellent depiction of the complexities and hardships that can come with schizophrenia.
5. Take Shelter
In the psychological thriller Take Shelter, actor Michael Shannon plays the character Curtis LaForche. Curtis a husband and father who’s grappling with suspicions that he may have schizophrenia. His mother had paranoid schizophrenia and started to display symptoms at LaForche’s age.
The movie takes you through LaForche’s struggle with typical schizophrenic symptoms of hallucinations, vivid dreams and mistrust of those around him. LaForche channels his fears into rebuilding a storm shelter, and his new behaviors start to put a strain on those closest to him.
The movie highlights the difficulties of diagnosing schizophrenia and the fears that naturally occur when the condition runs in your family.
6. Clean, Shaven
In one of Hollywood’s most accurate movies about schizophrenia, actor Peter Greene plays Peter Winter, a young man recently released from a mental health institution. Hallucinations and delusions, common symptoms characterizing schizophrenia, plague Peter, who desperately tries to get in touch with his daughter, interact with his mother, and live his life.
This low-budget film is devastating, realistic, and tragic. Peter cannot escape his mind prison and lives a nonstop nightmare. In the movie, a detective hounds Peter, convinced the young man murdered a child. This further complicates Peter’s frenetic existence. Viewers are immersed in Peter’s world, augmented by the movie’s artistically crafted sights and sounds replicating schizophrenia’s complexity and challenges.
Bullet is another movie with schizophrenia as an underlying theme. A violent drug war serves as the main plot of this film starring Tupac Shakur, Mickey Rourke, and Ted Levine. Shakur is a shot-caller drug dealer, while Rourke is a long-time heroin user who’s been released from prison. Rourke has a brother, Levine, a tech genius who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.
Levine’s character realistically portrays schizophrenia’s extreme paranoia, along with psychosis. He furtively monitors what other characters say during this gritty, dark, and disturbing film. The movie shows an incredible look at how paranoid schizophrenia devastates the individual diagnosed with it and the family. From the beginning to the end of the movie, schizophrenia is portrayed with stark authenticity.
8. Shutter Island
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Shutter Island, a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Playing a federal marshal with a tenuous grip on reality, DiCaprio tries to orient himself after he is transferred to a prison for the criminally insane on a small Massachusetts island. The isolated island is a metaphor for the paranoid schizophrenia the marshal has to contend with. This is one of the more powerful Hollywood movies about schizophrenia.
DiCaprio’s character suffers from PTSD following his World War II service. His experience included helping liberate the Dachau concentration camp and killing every Nazi guard afterward. The marshal’s investigation is further complicated by grief, as he can’t reconcile the loss of his wife, who perished in a fire.
The litany of issues DiCaprio’s character faces includes Nazi defectors, theories about conspiracy, and experiments using mind control. At the end of the movie with schizophrenia, DiCaprio undergoes a complete psychotic break.
9. Donnie Darko
Movies about schizophrenia are not always accurate depictions of this mental health disorder. Yet Donnie Darko is an exception. The lead character, Donnie Darko, is played by actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Donnie has a diagnosed mental health condition, sees a psychiatrist, and takes his prescribed medication. Yet he traipses around in the wee hours listening intently to a giant rabbit who tells him this is the end of the world.
Surreal, satirical, and even funny, the movie shows a young man trying to cope with puberty and high school. At the same time, he becomes increasingly distressed and breaks with reality as bizarre occurrences happen around him. The engine of a plane crashed into his house. Donnie, asleep on a golf course, isn’t injured. But he would have been killed if he’d slept at home.
Is Donnie suffering from schizophrenia? Is he a prophet? The movie, which features time travel as a plot device, threads tension throughout, with viewers wondering which condition is accurate. The film is another example of the movies about schizophrenia that is an excellent depiction of how individuals struggle with schizophrenia.
Among movies about schizophrenia, Spider, directed by David Cronenberg, stars Ralph Fiennes as a man with a fragile psyche who blocks tragedy about his mother from his mind. This movie, with schizophrenia in a vital role, is a stylish and emotionally riveting story with impressive acting from Fiennes, Gabriel Byrne, and Miranda Richardson.
As the movie opens, Fiennes’ character has been released into a halfway house following treatment at a mental hospital. There, he tries to solve the puzzle of events in the past that led him to catapult into chaos, losing all control in the process.
Some apparent tragedy with his mother is a repressed memory that Fiennes’ character cannot cope with. Like other movies about schizophrenia, where the sets and settings mirror characters’ delusions and hallucinations, Spider stands out with its beautiful design and photography.
Spider is a movie with schizophrenia playing a major role. Miranda Richardson plays Fiennes’ mother, stepmother, and another version of his halfway house landlord. The intent is for viewers to see the actress in all three roles as the representation of women that fill Fiennes’ mind. As for Fiennes, the audience sees things through his mind, not knowing what is real and what isn’t. He wanders in a landscape of the past, lost and adrift.
A More Progressive Hollywood
Hollywood has a responsibility to continue making more accurate movies with characters with schizophrenia. Many mental health conditions, including schizophrenia, still carry a lot of stigma in the public eye. If someone doesn’t have intimate knowledge about this condition, their primary understanding may come from film and television representations. Portraying people with schizophrenia as incredibly dangerous, violent and helpless doesn’t help destigmatize the condition.
FHE Health Can Help
Schizophrenia is a serious mental health condition, but help is available. Through the right combination of medication and therapy, individuals can be high-functioning members of society living out their best lives. FHE Health is a fully licensed mental health facility that offers effective and comprehensive treatment. Get the personalized help you need today by calling (833) 596-3502.