Alex Gibney is an Oscar-winning documentarian whose fearless examinations mirror the passion of Dorothy Lewis, a forensic psychiatrist who made it her life’s work to investigate the psychology of murderers. Totally Under Control took a look at the Trump administration’s response to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, serving as a hot-on-the-heels examination of the US response in contrast with South Korea. Yet, Gibney’s literally been attached to 50 episodic or documentary films over the last 5 years. Serving as writer-director on Crazy, Not Insane… the prolific, productive and influential filmmaker is making a name for himself on the back of many excellent productions.
Crazy, Not Insane doesn’t unpack every detail of the murders, it’s more concerned with the approach to research and a deeper psychological understanding. There are many serial killer documentaries out there, servicing morbid curiousity with the same energy that must have made public executions such a spectacle. The Coliseum probably wasn’t the first “skiet, skop and donner” show, but certainly made this kind of bloody gladiatorial entertainment a much more corporate affair. There are a host of treacherous “game show” films stemming from Battle Royale and The Lord of the Flies, which speak to the darker side of human nature and our fascination with death and what compels people to kill.
Dorothy Lewis openly admits a propensity for shadowy thoughts in her reflections on what motivates her work. Identifying with the primitive and hypothetical idea of what it would take for her to kill, she’s used this notion to spearhead her research and extend a level of empathy to those society deems pure evil. Describing evil as a religious concept, her investigations into the minds of serial killers has more to do with finding what makes them tick and what compels them to murder. Lewis contends that these people often become murderers as a result of a deadly mix of a horrific upbringing, partial brain damage and psychosis.
Chronicling some of her most famous cases, Lewis offers her insights, suggesting that a split caused by a traumatic childhood can extend into personality disorder and dissociative states associated with grisly and repeated murders. Trying to understand the mind of Ted Bundy and Arthur Shawcross, this chronicle and gentle character portrait offers some surprisingly empathetic and humanistic reflections.
“All work and no play makes Dorothy a dull girl.”
Gibney swathes us in a rich tapestry of key interviews, photographs and art, embedding her handwritten notes in the frame for texture and a signature feel. Eerie photographs, charcoal sketches to dramatise recollections and a mystery soundtrack give Crazy, Not Insane horror thriller undertones. This eclectic format recalls the Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, which was partly inspired by the Pink Floyd musical drama, The Wall. Through interviews with former associates, FBI profilers, serial killers and Lewis herself, we get a clearer understanding of her qualitative research and driving force.
It’s a fascinating and openhanded undertaking, shedding light on the psychiatrist’s groundbreaking career and offering evidence to back up her research without ignoring the naysayers. This isn’t a scientific documentary undertaking, leaning into its artistic and stylistic elements to create a beautifully composed film with free-flowing visuals. Testament to this is the choice to have Laura Dern do much of the voice-over narration. Much of her work has been observational – meeting most of her subjects regularly in non-confrontational face-to-face interviews in the pursuit of the truth.
Having gone against the grain, there is merit to her findings, which are revelatory and thought-provoking even if she’s been distanced by her academic community. Gibney’s documentary adds weight to Dorothy Lewis’s canon of research, ordering it in an entertaining, well-paced and polished format. Adding a considerable body of work into the public arena, you can see why the influential forensic psychiatrist has inspired so many to follow in her footsteps. Crazy, Not Insane is a captivating documentary that wrestles with contentious issues without sacrificing entertainment or infotainment value. While it certainly raises some interesting questions and provokes thought, the overview theorises rather than quantifies. There may not be many building blocks once the credits roll but there’s enough impetus and facts for us to re-examine our own estimations of the “criminally insane”.
The bottom line: Compelling