A schizophrenic brother, his sister and their attempt to traverse the mental health care machine: “That Way Madness Lies” tells a deeply moving and engaging interpersonal story between filmmaker Sandra Luckow and her brother Duanne. The title of the documentary comes from Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” In the namesake scene, Lear laments his inner demons and struggle to cope with the madness that overwhelms him — representative of Duanne and his own storm of mental illness.
The story begins with Duanne’s diagnosis in 2011 and takes the viewers through six years of Sandra and Duanne’s attempts to cope with Duanne’s illness, up until their ultimate separation in 2017. In a first-person narrative, Sandra intersperses clips of video filmed during the events that occurred to her and her family with Duanne’s own video diary, shot on his cell phone. The story takes us from the rather innocuous-seeming beginnings of Duanne’s illness through several hospital visits, the deaths of Duanne and Sandra’s parents and Sandra’s attempts to restore an element of control to Duanne’s and her lives.
One of the chief difficulties is distance: Sandra lives and works in New York City, while Duanne resides in Portland, Oregon. Their parents, who also live in Oregon, are incapable of managing Duanne — their father is descending into dementia, and both are incapable of reining him in — not helped by the fact that they are constantly feeding Duanne money without any question as to what he’s using it for. As a result, it is up to Sandra to try to figure out what is going on with Duanne and monitor his life, but the distance between the two of them makes this difficult, and Sandra loses track of Duanne several times over the course of the film — once, for as long as a year.
Throughout the documentary, Sandra struggles with her role as both caretaker and occasional antagonist in Duanne’s life. She is left having to manage his finances after Duanne sends away thousands of dollars as a result of a Nigerian email scam. This causes her to have to sell Duanne’s house, which inevitably puts Sandra at odds with Duanne. In addition, she calls the police on him more than once, gets a restraining order that prevents him from entering his former house, resulting in his homelessness, and attempts to force treatment on him when he very clearly does not regard himself as sick. In return, Duanne frequently threatens Sandra over Facebook and email. It is clear that Sandra is doing her best to help Duanne as much as she can, but she admits herself that she may not go about it in the best way.
The film employs a first-person cinematography along with the documentary footage Sandra provides. On the Kickstarter page for the movie, Sandra writes: “My 48-year-old brother, Duanne, unwittingly chronicles his descent into madness with his iPhone’s capabilities. It’s brutal and honest.” Indeed, Duanne’s videography is perhaps the most stunning part of the film, as we watch from a first-person view the untreated effects of schizophrenia and how a person with schizophrenia interacts with the world around him. The phone was confiscated from Duanne prior to his admission to the Oregon State Hospital, and he gave it to Sandra, telling her to make a movie regarding what he perceived as his persecution.
“I have never had the opportunity to see a first-person point of view of psychosis like this,” a doctor told Sandra, which she related in a Q&A following the screening at the Whitney Humanities Center.
Many films that deal with similar topics are often romanticized or idealized. However, it is almost difficult to write about this work given the film’s vulnerable and personal depiction of Luckow’s narrative. She leaves herself and her decisions open to critique and does not filter her own character. Therefore, Luckow’s role as the filmmaker is detached from her role as Duanne’s sister, an imperfect character attempting and struggling to traverse the situation in which she has been placed. This provides an accurate depiction of how family members struggle to take care of the mentally ill. There is no correct answer or unanimously perfect decision that does not result in negative consequences. Luckow cannot simply uproot her life to protect and care for her brother, even when there is no one else to do so. As a result, the story provides the harsh reality regarding how we, as a society, address mental illness.
Luckow stated in an interview with the News that, “It is my greatest hope that this film will be an agent for changing the way we deal with our mental health in America.” However, the film is in no way an explicit critique of the mental health system. Seldom does anyone in the film talk about how procedures and mental health practices actively work against their patients; this is not “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Rather, the film shows Duanne’s story, and the audience is witness to his treatment, giving them the opportunity to realize for themselves how much or little it truly helps him.
A huge success, “That Way Madness Lies” has won and been nominated for multiple awards. It dares to expose the difficult and often uncomfortable reality of mental illness — and you shouldn’t miss a minute.
Jake Kalodner and Nick Tabio | email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org