Directed by Arnaud Desplechin (IFC Films, 2014)
Every once in a blue moon, Hollywood produces a movie demanding that we not just sit back and be entertained by our fantasies, but that we actually examine ourselves and our society through the lens of our dreams. Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian is one of those films.
French director Arnaud Desplechin’s film about the psychoanalysis of Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro), a Blackfoot World War II veteran suffering from catatonia and blinding headaches, seems like a decidedly un-American movie about a real, or native, American—it’s a Western and a war story with a Plains Indian for a hero, but without a single cowboy, cavalry charge, or gunfight. Here is a portrayal of an America unrecognizable to John Ford audiences: a place where returning war heroes suffer from a soul sickness; where strangers see us more clearly than we see ourselves; and where what ails us cannot be fixed with a knife or a gun, but only by unmasking our dreams.
In this meandering but fascinating film, Desplechin uses the psychoanalysis of Jimmy P. to make a wider commentary on American culture, suggesting that just as Jimmy’s dreams reveal deep and paralyzing wounds, our shared cinematic fantasies point to underlying ills in the American psyche—ills we do not recognize living inside the dream world of our own cultural myths about violence and success. As Jimmy says about the mental hospital where he is confined, and perhaps about the larger American society where he lives, “It’s strange living in a place where people are so sick.”
The movie is a cinematic parable in which an atypical American hero (a Westerner and a warrior who is an Indian) overcomes adversity not with one of John Ford’s six-shooters, but by unmasking myths that keep us unconscious and paralyzed. This is a movie offering not merely entertainment, but rather a chance for rewarding soul repair.
This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 5, page 42).