Perhaps it was inevitable that “Brain On Fire” — writer/director Gerard Barrett’s adaptation of Susannah Cahalan’s memoir of her month being hospitalized with the rare autoimmune disease anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis — would lose arguably the most interesting aspect of the book: the fact that, because Cahalan can’t remember anything about her hospitalization, she treats her own life during that month as a journalistic investigation, and, by extension, as an inquiry into her own self. Barrett’s docudrama is, by comparison, a straightforward, linear depiction of what Cahalan described in her book as her “month of madness”: the paranoia, violent mood swings, and seizures that, after a slew of misdiagnoses, would eventually leave her bedridden in a hospital until one doctor was able to finally pinpoint the cause of her illness.
Still, Barrett’s film has a blunt, primal effectiveness on its own terms. Though he occasionally aims for a subjective approximation of her experience during this traumatic time — heightened sound design that threatens to engulf her, blurring of images to bring visceral immediacy to the headaches she feels —generally he takes an omniscient approach to this harrowing story, laying out the details of Cahalan’s case in the manner of a journalist giving us facts. The experience of watching “Brain On Fire” is thus akin to gawking at a car crash in slow motion, with each scene introducing a new horror as Cahalan’s (Chloë Grace Moretz) mental disorder gets scarily worse with each seizure and random outburst.
Even more unsettling than seeing Cahalan doing such things as talking to a faucet or fouling up a major interview for the New York Post by insulting a senator, however, is witnessing level after level of institutional failure in the American medical system. As Barrett’s film presents Cahalan’s case, doctor after doctor seemed all too willing to chalk her disease up to alcohol and/or drug abuse or simple overexertion, throwing prescription drugs at the problem instead of trying to root out the cause. But then, what of the first doctor Cahalan sees, who clearly noticed that the bedbug bites she claimed were on her left forearm weren’t actually there, but who apparently didn’t say anything about it to her? Barrett refuses to offer anything by way of comment, instead simply cutting away to the next scene; that detachment only increases the film’s disturbing power.
Though Barrett proves to be interested in medical process in the first half of the film, it ultimately pivots towards a more conventionally crowd-pleasing sensibility. A wave of “triumph of the human spirit” affirmation marks its last act, especially when Dr. Souhel Najjar (Navid Negahban), the doctor who was able to finally diagnose Cahalan’s disease correctly, enters the picture. Sentimental touches abound: Cahalan’s devoted boyfriend Stephen (Thomas Mann) writes a song for her that inspires her to shed tears even in her catatonic state; her frustrated father Tom (Richard Armitage) delivers an angry outburst that emphasizes his desire to “find out what is wrong with my daughter;” John Paesano’s music score ramps up the tear-jerking electronic droning. Cahalan recovers from her severe encephalitis, but instead of ending with the book’s reflective, sobering aftermath, Barrett instead concludes the film with that hoary biopic cliché of a scene in which someone — in this case, her editor at the New York Post, Richard (Tyler Perry) — inspires her to write about her experiences, the result of which we have just bore witness for the last hour and a half.
“Brain On Fire” is often effective, and at times positively enraging, but one can’t help but lament the much more disquieting film that might have resulted had the filmmakers been more willing to trust the facts of Cahalan’s case to speak for themselves instead of feeling a need to shove them into uplifting platitudes. [B-]