Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Director: Paul Schrader
Producers: Linda Reisman
Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Cast: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe, Mary Beth Hurt, Jim True, Marian Seldes
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1997
Wade Whitehouse is a part-time cop and part-time handyman in a small New Hampshire town. He plows the road, holds up traffic for the school bus, and hands out tickets. His uniform, gun and stature do not make up for the fact that he views himself as a worthless, incompetent loser. He just goes through the motions, numbed out, and doesn't follow-through with almost anything. When Wade first appears on screen, he runs late through the blue New England twilight, having forgotten an appointment, arguing with his young daughter Jill, whom he loves desperately, but he has disappointed her over and over again. She looks at him as if he is crazy because he is not capable of really listening to her.
His ex-wife Lillian feels a deep contempt for Wade. He is a heavy drinker and smokes pot on the job. Although he is a bad father and sheriff, he retains enough qualities to inspire the loyalty of his girlfriend Margie Fogg. She accepts him the way he is.
When Wade's father Glen appears on the screen, we understand the source of his defeat. Glen Whitehouse is a cauldron of alcoholic venom, a violent man whose consolation in life has been to dominate and terrorize his family. In flashbacks to Wade's childhood, we observe that Glen sometimes beat his son when he was sober but more usually when he was drunk while belittling him mercilessly. His wife watched the cruelty. "Women like this, it's like they live their lives with the sound turned off. And then they're gone,'' says the film's narrator, Wade's brother Rolfe.
Wade has grown big in body but remains small in mind. He appears as if he feels at any moment that his dad is going to burst in, tell him he is no good, and start abusing him again. The way things look, learning how to help an alcoholic family member is a concept that is totally strange to both men.There are scenes where they are on the screen together, and the sheriff is shrinking, as if afraid of a sudden blow.
In one scene, Wade and Margie go to his dad's house and find him sitting in his living room in a stuporous state with his door open in the middle of the winter. His wife, Wade's mother, lies frozen to death upstairs. Because he is drunk, Glen is unable to acknowledge the situation. He seems not aware that his wife has died and tries to rouse her. None of his children, who come back to their hometown for their mother's funeral, mention that their dad might have had a role in her death. Their denial might be so great because they are still fearful of their father.
Later, at the funeral, Wade tries to lead the family in a semblance of a dignified service, while drinking beer. His father had already been drinking straight whiskey. He demonstrates many signs of intoxication, including slurred speech, swearing, unsteady gait, and labile mood. And he provokes a physical fight, dragging others down to his level.
Months later, on the first day of the deer hunting season, Wade's friend Jack takes a wealthy vacationer to hunt and returns as the only one alive with the man's expensive gun and some bloodstains. Jack insists it was an accidental self-inflicted shot. Wade doesn't believe him and begins an investigation that stirs up the stagnant town. This investigation also shakes up his life. He grabs the chance to discover meaning in his life. This process triggers many insights about how things have gone wrong, and what he can do about it. Wade experiences healing from his emotional childhood wounds and develops into a stronger person.
My 41-year-old client Peter struggled with symptoms of dysthymic disorder and insomnia. In his intake interview he told me that his father was addicted to alcohol. During alcohol binges Peter's dad frequently lost control and terrorized his three sons. When I heard this, I started to wonder whether a major reason for Peter's symptoms were his childhood trauma that resulted from his father's verbal and physical abuse.
My client believed that his father's behavior had no effect on him. He told me that he had struggled with drinking too much alcohol himself for many years because that's what he learned from watching his dad. "Since I have been clean and sober, I left my past behind. The beatings during my childhood have long been forgotten," said Peter.
I had used the movie Affliction to illustrate the serious consequences of alcoholism and childhood abuse on the lives of the survivors of childhood trauma successfully before. Peter's passive attitude and negative self-image reminded me of the character Wade in the movie. Therefore I recommended this film to him. When he watched it, he was surprised about the similarities to his own experiences. He told me that feelings resurfaced that he used to have when he grew up. When I inquired more into this, my client was able to acknowledge the impact of his father's alcoholism and physical abuse on his emotional development for the first time.
During the course of his treatment I also used a technique that I call Film Re-entry . In trance, my client entered the story of the movie in the scenes that had impacted him the most when he had watched the film. For Peter this was a scene that showed Wade in a flashback getting abused by his dad as a child. Then I encouraged Peter to let his own story unfold while I guided him along. Through this process preconscious material about the impact of the abuse was revealed. Subsequently I used EMDR to work with his trauma.
The movie, in combination with Film Re-entry as well as client-centered therapeutic work helped Peter to break through his denial safely. This allowed him to start working on the recovery from his childhood trauma. Through the EMDR treatment he was able to tap into previously hidden inner strengths. Not long after that he started sleeping better. His negative self-image, his passive attitude, and consequently his dysthymia gradually dissipated.
In my Cinema Alchemy work with Peter I drew from hypnotherapy and dream work. Dream Re-entry through hypnosis is an effective method for opening up communication with dream characters, exploring different responses to a dream situation, completing a dream story, and re-experiencing a state of being from a dream. It enables the client to track inner imagery to the core of an issue or symptom and transform the issue or symptom at its source.
Like dreams, our emotional responses to movies can be considered "windows to our soul." Therefore similarly to Dream Re-entry, Film Re-entry is a powerful process of therapeutic imaging in which clients "become" a movie character. As they enter the imaginal domain, they describe themselves as the character and get a sense of what it is like for them to "be" this film character. On this visionary journey, they experience and embody the character's issues or qualities. Clients can also engage in a dialogue between characters. Or they can alternately "be" and give a voice to one or more film characters. Frequently, unconscious material gets revealed.
In the Film Re-entry process the therapist tracks the inner path of progressive imagery to a place where the client is able to reconnect to the essential resources and the source needed to transform or release a previously unconscious pattern.
Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions for Clients who Struggle with Childhood Trauma
Did you see a character experience a similar trauma as you had in your childhood?
How was your story similar or different from the story of this character?
How did the character's childhood experience impact his or her life as an adult? Do you see any similarities to your life?
Did the film character eventually develop certain strengths or other capacities that showed that he or she was able to heal?
Imagine yourself starting to heal and being able to experience these strengths or other positive qualities. How would your life change?
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy