Film

Review: Understanding the Woman Who Tries To Understand Murderers in Alex Gibney’s Crazy, Not Insane

Releasing his second documentary in as many months (following the co-helmed Totally Under Control, the timely look at how the U.S. government handled the response to the COVID-19 outbreak during the early months of the pandemic), director Alex Gibney enters a new realm (for him at least) of non-fiction filmmaking: the criminal mind. But his Crazy, Not Insane isn’t about solving a decades-old cold case or profiling a famous crime/criminal. Instead, the film profiles noted psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, who has committed her life and work to the study of murderers—particularly serial killers—in order to understand the trauma and/or biological differences that may predispose these subjects to act violently when the rest of us opt not to.

Crazy Not Insane

Image courtesy of HBO

Previously, Gibney has certainly varied the topics he covers—from seismic-shifts (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, The Inventor) to more pop cultural subjects like James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Hunter S. Thompson, Lance Armstrong, and even Rolling Stone magazine—but this new film feels like something that exists at the intersection. Dr. Lewis has certainly gained notoriety over the decades for her theories on dissociative identity (or multiple personality) disorder and how many mass murderers create these other figures in their brains to mask childhood traumas. She has testified in many high-profile court cases and was sometimes laughed out of the courtroom by those who would rather believe that people are either good or evil, with no excuses for the latter to be given.

But watching or listening to tapes of her conversations with noted serial killers, it’s easy to understand why her theories might actually be dead on. The unexpected shock she gets as she combs through old field notes and recordings, only to discover tapes of her talking with Ted Bundy near the end of his appeals process (he called her the only person who tried to understand him) before being executed is a terrific moment in the film. In many of his films, Gibney acts as narrator and his voice is heard frequently throughout them. With Crazy, Not Insane, he’s mostly quiet, giving the good doctor her time in the spotlight after decades of likely having had male counterparts dismiss and talk over her.

Using archival news footage as well as fairly grisly evidence photos and films, the movie moves us through about a half-dozen different subjects that Dr. Lewis worked with and in many cases served as a witness for the defense. The film shows how, in early cases, she verbally stumbled on the stand and failed to present solid findings convincingly, giving prosecutors the room they needed to discredit her testimony.

The tone of the film is the most curious things about it. Although his actual voice is absent from most of the film, Gibney seems genuinely giddy about presenting Dr. Lewis to the rest of the world in such a positive and accepting light, not unlike how filmmaker Errol Morris frequently does with some of his oddball subjects. Certainly, Gibney’s approach is not off-putting, but it is unusual for him, and that may be one of the reason I took to it so whole-heartedly. This is not to say that some of what is being presented here in terms of the actual murders isn’t horrific and sometimes graphic, but it’s nothing that most true crime podcast listeners can’t handle. Crazy, Not Insane probably isn’t for the easily squeamish, but it is a fascinating journey with an influential woman, walking us through her life and life’s work. As a mass consumer of documentaries, I find that irresistible.

The film is now playing on HBO and HBO MAX.

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