Movies about “issues” have a way of demeaning and undermining the issue. Drama itself is already by design an instrument for provoking sympathy or empathy in the viewer. Add an “issue” to the equation and it can become too much; watching the movie can feel like doing homework or being forced to eat asparagus. In other words, a good drama already draws you in and makes you care without layering on the added burden of signaling you as to what you should care about.
That’s why Abel Ferrara’s “The Funeral” (1996), written by Nicholas St. John, is so good: It’s a movie about mental health that wouldn’t be caught dead selling itself as or even admitting to being a movie about mental health. It’s ostensibly about three brothers (Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, and Vincent Gallo) in a Depression-era gangster family who get struck by tragedy and spiral into crisis. The crisis brings the family’s skeletons screaming out of their closets, revealing a group that would have had much more of a shot in life with greater psychological and psychopharmacological resources.
For real: I’m not stretching. It’s a mental health movie. But by being a raw crime thriller about a family and a specific set of personalities rather than a maudlin melodrama about Things We Are Supposed To Care About, “The Funeral” strikes at something scary, shocking, and dangerous about mental illness. It evokes what it’s like to live day by day with pain eating up your mind.
I’ve lived that way. The worst of it was in 1996. Summer of ‘97, I started going twice a week to an energy healer, and little by little my anxiety, panic, and obsessive thoughts started to ease. It was a slog, though. I didn’t know if I’d make it. One weekend, between my freshman and sophomore years in college, my parents went away on a trip. They probably worried about me being alone, but then again I was on a slow-moving upswing; I told them to go and enjoy themselves.
Obsessive thoughts are a nightmare. It’s like getting punched all day long from the inside of your own head. Your thoughts aren’t your own, at least not entirely. The thoughts you want, the normal ones, the ones you’re more or less OK with, keep getting interrupted by these glaring, ethereal images of sheer depravity — things I’ve never set into writing for fear that the men in white would come and grab me. Anyway, that’s how it was for me: intrusive thoughts. If my normative stream of consciousness was like a gentle melody, then the images were like a sudden sledgehammer to the piano keys.
Sometimes I got breaks, though. I’d fall into a conversation with a friend, and my thoughts would briefly settle and normalize. One time, in the movie theater, watching “Jerry Maguire” (also ‘96), I made it two-plus hours without a single punch or sledgehammer connecting. Most of the time, though, all day long, it was those harsh thoughts breaking my mind apart, splitting mental flesh.
My parents left for the weekend. I ate fried chicken in the basement. I didn’t hang out with any of my friends. Mental illness has a loyal friend in loneliness. I went over to Blockbuster, got a stack of tapes. One such tape was “The Funeral.” My expectations were low, but I love Walken and Penn.
The movie gave me 90 minutes of peace.
Ironic, considering how dark it was. But it was so absorbing and perceptive that it shut off the faucet of my obsessive thoughts. It was one of those moments, 90 minutes long, in which I knew I could eventually be healed:
If I can make it that long without the thoughts, then maybe someday I can go whole days without them…
I got there. Energy healing helped me. For 20-some-odd years as of mid-‘97, the OCD stayed settled. But before it went quiet, in the thick of the fight, I needed some bursts of hope.
“The Funeral” provided one.
Maybe it quieted my madness ‘cause it told the truth. I could take a breather from the illness in my head and embrace the travails of the tortured characters onscreen. Never underestimate the power of art, even pop or crass art, to alleviate suffering by leveling with its audience. An after school special couldn’t have saved me. I needed an encounter with the nastiness of the world.
Plus, it’s a great movie: riveting, spontaneous, tense, ragged, funny. Christopher Walken gives what might be his best performance, due respect to the better-known classics. But he’s human here, likable, grounded and more sympathetic than I’ve ever seen him. Being Walken, too, he’s somewhat exotic, like a gender neutral alien cat. But you can see him in “The Funeral,” in a way I don’t think you ever can anywhere else, as a guy thinking through a predicament and solving problems (even when his “solutions” reach inevitable dead ends).
Chris Penn, also, is a showstopper. And Benicio del Toro’s in it, as well, as a dapper, sexy enemy of the family who perhaps bears more bark than bite. It’s a cheap movie, with shoddy sets and a screenplay that feels a little rushed, but the shock of it, the emotion of it, is impossible to wash off, let alone ever forget.
I sought “The Funeral” out for over 20 years. Never once in the digital on-demand environment did I ever see it available. It was a lost gem, a memory, a raw, dark source of temporary healing — an enabler of temporary sanity as a result of depicting sanity’s bleak opposite.
Until last night, when I found it sitting there casually, on a little channel called Hitz.
The wife was asleep. The kids were asleep. I pressed play immediately. Hey, it’s 90 minutes long.
But this time, unlike last time, while I watched and enjoyed, I did have some distractions in my head, albeit not of the obsessive-compulsive kind.
I was thinking of the kid I once was, 19 years old, home alone for the weekend, watching a movie and feeling grateful that, just for a little while, his mind was actually his own.
I gave that kid a small wave, from 25 years in the future. He made it. He lived. Met a wife; they had children. They made movies, wrote books, got in crazy adventures.
I couldn’t see that from there. But I can see it from here.
What a wonderful thing it is to stay alive.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to call OR text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.