E. M. FORSTER was suave. “Deeply ambivalent” about the value of criticism, he nonetheless agreed to be the 1927 keynote speaker at Trinity College Dublin, out of which gig came the critical work Aspects of the Novel. “I have chosen the title ‘Aspects’ because it is unscientific and vague,” he notes in his introductory remarks — a point he returns to regularly throughout his “ramshackly” undertaking. With the work’s passage into general fame, however, such hesitance would be forgotten and only the audacity would remain. Subtler moments, such as his sensuous depictions of the novel as “moist,” “a swamp,” and a “spongy tract,” would fade, and attention would instead fall overwhelmingly on his distinction between two types of fictional characters: the rounded and the flat.
This distinction is now ubiquitous, the Hollywood equivalent of the Show, Don’t Tell writers’ workshop axiom, which, like the injunction to write rounded and complex characters, crops up in more places than one would wish and takes on the force of an article of faith. Entire philosophies of screenwriting have spun off from this basic distinction, taking Forster’s delicate framework and using it to prop up practical wisdoms of the rulebook variety. Among the most extreme expressions of this injunction is perhaps the version offered by Robert McKee, legendary story guru whose seminar alumni include, among others, Kirk Douglas, Joan Rivers, “the entire writing staff of Pixar,” and David Bowie. In Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, his 1997 screenwriting manual (the current, and long-standing, number one on Amazon’s “Television Screenwriting” best-sellers list), McKee enjoins that the writer must possess nothing less than totalizing knowledge regarding their fictional characters. In his words:
Suppose a creature had the power to burrow into the brain and come to know an individual completely — dreams, fears, strengths, weaknesses. Suppose that this Mind Worm also had the power to cause events in the world. […] [T]he writer is a Mind Worm. We too burrow into a character to discovers his aspects, his potential, then create an event geared to his unique nature — the Inciting Incident.
The writer as Mind Worm; the character as “virtually uncountably dimensional.” This is Forster’s cinematic legacy, and its confident self-assurance is as far from the probing hesitance of the original as it is possible to get, just as McKee’s use of the word “aspects” above diverges from the valence deliberately employed by Forster. This isn’t to knock McKee, who is often nuanced and sensitive in his own right, but to illustrate just how iron-fisted and absolute Hollywood’s obsession with complex characters has become.
Contemporary television, more than any other medium, thrives on this discourse of character complexity. Dating all the way back from Tony Soprano’s struggle sessions with Dr. Melfi to today’s glut of prestige dramas (In Treatment, Succession, Mare of Easttown) and reality shows (Blue Therapy, Couples Therapy), TV has become the medium of the character study, its seasons-long runtime perhaps offering a more conducive playground for Mind Wormy rooting around than film’s comparatively delimited scope. It is fitting, then, that when we find signs of reaction against these characterological dicta it is in cinema that we find them. For set against the industrial obsession with rounded character is a recent uptick in films that seem to pull the rug out from under their own narrativizing techniques, their own pains to deliver “complex” psychologies. Therapists are nothing new in media, but the texts of this new manifestation (whose instances are still too sparing and diffuse to call a “genre”) do something novel with their therapists, something that returns the hesitation to Forster’s experimental dichotomy. By serving as vehicles for delivering character complexity, therapists become proxies for industrial discourse. The fate of these fictional therapists is, then, a fate projected onto industrial injunctions.
“Help doesn’t help,” Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson), trying to bat off a pushy husband, says early in Daniel Isn’t Real (Adam Egypt Mortimer, 2019). “These medicines don’t make me me. I’m not me anymore when I take these medicines. I’m perfectly fine. You are not a doctor.”
We watch the scene with her son Luke (Miles Robbins), spying through a doorway, and, like him, it takes us a while to understand her strange destructive behaviors as symptoms of schizophrenia. Claire can’t stand the sight of mirrors, cuts up books and newspapers in search of hidden messages — shattering mirrors, destroying text, rejecting these totems of subjectivity just as she rejects psychiatric interventions or a medicalized self. Luke tries not to follow in her footsteps, making regular visits to a well-meaning, if cliché-ridden, therapist (Chukwudi Iwuji) in whose large, light-filled office he speaks willingly, if with some difficulty, of his childhood imaginary friend. The therapist encourages him to revisit this specter, certain that mental fictions such as alternate identities can only be figures of trauma. It is to one such visit when his therapist says, “You shouldn’t be afraid of your imagination,” that Luke owes the return of his demonic other — a shapeshifting spirit named Daniel.
The therapeutic exchanges in Daniel Isn’t Real are emblematic of such encounters in the therapist thriller: a deeply familiar and seemingly benign dialogue that glitches, sabotages itself, fails dramatically, and unleashes vast narrative consequences, thus setting the thriller in motion. In this case, the therapist’s insinuation that his childhood hallucination is nothing to be afraid of leads Luke to release Daniel from the miniature house in which he’d once locked the demon on his mother’s request. The therapist undoes the work of the mother — with fatal consequences. The mark of the therapist thriller is the negative valence it gives its therapists; the talking cure is not a cure at all but a curse, and Daniel Isn’t Real delivers among the most visceral demonstrations of this transvaluation.
Deep into the film, the therapist pays his troubled client a home visit. Armed with a singing bowl and a dagger “strong enough to pierce our demons — or as they call them these days, our trauma,” he induces hypnosis in both himself and Luke, while continuing to deliver hackneyed film dialogue like, “Fear and loneliness are some of the most powerful emotions humans can experience.” Luke’s head lolls; he seems to fall asleep. The therapist isn’t prepared for what comes next. With Luke hypnotized and out of the picture, Daniel the demon (played by a black leather-clad Patrick Schwarzenegger, all swagger) steps forward unconstrained, grabs Luke by the jaw, and stretches it to inhuman proportions, until it’s big enough for Daniel to slip inside head first, which is what he does, shoes and all. The demon enters pointedly via through the site of speech, Daniel’s mouth distorting like some grotesque sort of Play-Doh to accommodate entry. Luke/Daniel picks up the dagger strong enough to pierce demons and pierces the therapist with it instead, stabbing him in the stomach and the chest until the pool of congealed blood in the morning is thick as jelly.
In eviscerating its therapist, Daniel Isn’t Real performs a genre-defining contempt, ridicule, and rejection of discourses of character psychology. Attempts to enwrap Luke in diagnostic psychological evaluations — frightened and lonely; in the shadow of a mentally ill mother — backfire extravagantly, destroying instead of healing. The talking cure becomes the demon’s literal site of entry. An attempted therapeutic intervention accelerates the character’s unraveling. We can call this the Incompetent Therapist, one form which the therapists of therapist thrillers adopt.
Psychological models have long accompanied cinematic discourse. The marriage of psychologism and cinematic discourse might have seen its peak in the ’70s, with the writings of Laura Mulvey, whose field-shaping diagnosis of an active male gaze and passive female object as film’s structuring forces ported Freudian psychoanalysis onto film theory. “Woman as image, man as bearer of the look” — this is the model that Mulvey suggests drives Hollywood, a model she derives from psychoanalytic ideas of identity formation. Whatever the virtues of Mulvey’s essay (and there are many), it also stands as an example of the way in which psychologism closes off alternative avenues of approach to cinematic engagement, reducing the cinematic encounter to a play between psychoanalytic coordinates.
Consider also David Bordwell’s metaphor for cinematic viewership as a passage through a winding corridor. “The spectator,” he writes in the much-assigned tome The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, “passes through the classical film as if moving through an architectural volume, remembering what she or he has already encountered, hazarding guesses about upcoming events, assembling images and sounds into a total shape.” This description emphasizes such cognitive processes as memory, guesswork, and problem-solving, as if the journey through the film’s runtime were akin to solving a puzzle or navigating a complex space. The problem with this metaphor, as with the rest of the text, is its fantasy of totality: of having solved the problem of cinematic viewership without acknowledgment of potential residues. There is a different, but related, fetish at work here: the fetish of scientism, of quantitative rigor over qualitative impression, as if the too-literary critical output of figures like Bazin or Barthes were unequal to the real work of film theory.
What’s left out by such models? The crevices of subjective engagement; the crevasses of the personal and the peculiar; to use a Barthesian term, the punctum, that elusive inexplicable detail that pricks the viewer. The blasts of prelapsarian imagery of a Stan Brakhage film (for instance) will be forever foreclosed from a “mainstream” film in these psychological models; were such moments to occur, the film would no longer qualify as mainstream. Hollywood is an airtight system; it leaves no room to breathe. The injunction to write rounded, complex characters is the industrial counterpart of the pyschoanalytic tradition in the academy. Like its scholarly sibling, the mandate to craft psychologically full characters makes narrow assumptions about the nature of viewership and the location of pleasure in visual media. The allure of “relatable” characters is that one knows to whom they are relatable; a known psychology is grafted onto an imagined audience. Therapist thrillers perform an irruption of the medium against these injunctions.
Split (2016), M. Night Shyamalan’s drama of multiple personalities, plays as an allegory of the fixation with rounded versus flat characters. The film responds to the obsession with complex psychology with a fictional illness: Dissociated Identity Disorder (DID), a condition which saddles a single body with numerous distinct personalities. These are superhumanly rounded characters who can casually perform such feats as taking notes about different subjects with both their left and right hands simultaneously. Contrast this über-complexity with the film’s three kidnapped girls, none of whom have DID and who therefore “will never reach their potential” according to Kevin (James McAvoy), the film’s protagonist. As he explains to his therapist, no one need worry about his having kidnapped these girls, because “they don’t really matter.”
But unlike the therapist in Daniel Isn’t Real, Split’s Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) is good at what she does — possibly too competent, for it’s her very words that spin Kevin out of control and trigger the sequence of events that end in her murder at his hands. An academic at the fore-edge of DID research, she understands Kevin’s condition better than anyone else, and it’s through her, too, that the audience learns of it. Seen addressing a conference via Skype (its screens splitting off in a weird reminder of all the conferences of 2020–’21), she describes to her colleagues — and to us — the nature of the disorder, the possibility that “these individuals, through their suffering, [have] unlocked the potential of the brain.” It is Dr. Fletcher’s probing and needling of Dennis (a rogue identity within Kevin) that propels the narrative, cueing us into the power struggles underway between Kevin’s 23 identities (all of them played by a liquid McAvoy) — information not otherwise made available by the film.
But if Dr. Fletcher is brilliant, she is also finally insufficient. Her own words turn against her, her very erudition a weapon in Dennis’s hands. “You say the same things,” Dennis says to Dr. Fletcher, comparing her to “the Beast” — a destructive 24th identity newly come to light. Psychological discourse short-circuits; instead of a curative function it turns combustive, as Dr. Fletcher’s attempts at disproving the Beast’s existence become the very means of its creation. She argues that because Dennis and Patricia (another “undesirable identity”) have never met the Beast, who supposedly lives in a train yard: he’s a mere fantasy and not a legitimate alternate identity. Very well then. Dennis/Patricia go to the train yard and meet/transform into the beast, channeling Dr. Fletcher’s insight that “DID patients have changed their body chemistry with their thoughts.” The beast then kills the therapist, first disabling her capacity to speak with gas sprayed to the face and then wrapping his arms around her and squeezing until the ribs horribly crack, crippling the very apparatus of discourse.
Earlier in the film, describing to Kevin the Beast’s supposed qualities in a way meant to make obvious the hopeless hyperbole of this fantasy figure, Dr. Fletcher says: “[The] beast can crawl on walls, like the best rock climbers using the slightest friction and imperfections to hold his body close to seemingly sheer surfaces. […] His skin is thick and tough like the hide of a rhinoceros.” In the film’s final scenes, these words become real. Distorted with muscle, blood vessels hideously pronounced, the beast scales a vertical wall in a movement that might have been balletic had the body not been so grotesque. Down to the minutest detail, this is a transformation made possible by the therapeutic speech act. Because this is a therapist thriller, the valence of this speech act is reversed: instead of “healing demons,” it births one.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s stylish 2019 thriller Swallow features an ethically suspect therapist who turns spy for her client’s husband — following each session with a detailed summary of Hunter’s (Haley Bennett) demons to her husband. The privacy of the therapist-client relation is flagrantly violated, and it’s this violation that triggers Hunter’s spiral into increasing self-harm (pica, the compulsion to ingest non-food objects). Therapy, again, does not heal — instead it is the starting shot that sets off the thriller’s final act. Or take Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), Netflix’s solo foray into interactive cinema, one of whose possible plots features a therapist in cahoots with an evil father running experiments on grief with his son as the unknowing subject. “If this were entertainment,” the therapist (Alice Lowe) says, in a cheeky reference to the film itself. “Surely they’d make it more interesting. Inject a little action, isn’t that right? […] Wouldn’t you want a little more action if you were watching this, now, on telly?” Cue glitchy, warbling, electro-pop as a martial arts fight breaks out between therapist and client (Fionn Whitehead), the music perfectly mirroring the mode of this moment: a generic irruption in a very strange Netflix film, the signature irruption of therapist thrillers, a therapist whose discourse fails and, by its failure, lights the thriller’s fuse.
With Bandersnatch, Split, Daniel Isn’t Real, Swallow, or any other therapist thriller, one thing is clear: whatever the exact nature of the therapist’s fuck-up, the point is always a send-up of character discourse and a jab at the industrial discourse to “make it complex.” Their emergence make every sense, given the state of play in the current media climate. Rooted in literary criticism but much more influential and endemic, the theoretico-industrial valorization of rounded and complex characters constrains film production from within. Yet it has not kept pace with industrial change or the mushrooming of ever-newer, and ever-trimmer, forms of cinematic production. Vines ran a maximum of six seconds. TikTok went from 15 seconds to the oceanic 60. Instagram Video maxes at 15 seconds; IGTV at an interminable hour. Quibi, had it succeeded, would have delivered visual narratives at no more than 10 minutes. It would be naïve to assume that this radical brevity has left untouched the aesthetic, narrative, and formal expectations for traditional visual media, or that the hectic wash of visual stimuli in a post-cinematic world changes nothing in cinema itself.
The foolish, intelligent, incompetent, overly competent, immoral, spying therapists of therapist thrillers are a reaction to and rejection of Hollywood’s prevailing, anachronistic, and conservative discourse of character. With therapists as proxies for this discourse, these films enact an internal sabotage, defying an outmoded “Hollywoodian” system from within that system. But this doesn’t yet rise to subversion or transgression, which are more transformative words. Films like Daniel Isn’t Real, Split, and Swallow sit squarely within long-standing and well-understood genre brackets, enacting known narrative structures, plot points, and visual styles. Even Bandersnatch, formally innovative, finally bows to traditional notions of narrative arcs by allowing users to play through all “missed” endings and alternate paths, failing to stick the landing in its attempt at a cinema where choices matter. They might chafe against the narrowness of Hollywood’s discourse of character, but therapist thrillers do not replace it; they describe the system’s shortcomings without performing an alternative. Emergent, scant, and frustrated, these thrillers diagnose the sickness of a discourse like an incompetent therapist, never offering a cure or anything resembling relief.