This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like PSYCHOSIS being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Establishing the tone of the film, PSYCHOSIS begins with a black screen and whispered voices giving demands and insults. Now these are not the soothing ASMR whispers, but the kind that makes you feel like there are too many people living in your head. And the head in question belongs to Cliff Van Arle (Derryn Amoroso) who hears these voices all day, every day.
The lead character of this bizarre movie suffers from paracusia, which means he suffers from auditory hallucinations. Coming all the way from Australia to play at Popcorn Frights Film Festival, Pirie Martin’s debut feature film PSYCHOSIS follows Cliff (and his voices) as he deals with rival drug gangs, zombies, hypnosis, and of course, the ever-present voices.
Cliff cleans up crime scenes for the people who committed the crime (think Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction). His most recent case involves two drug dealers, a decapitated body, and lots of blood. Cliff intends to clean the room, but also fix the situation for the dim-witted dealers. Following the trail of blood and self-medicating with a large amount of coffee, Cliff uncovers a new hallucinogenic drug ring with the allusive Joubini (James McClusky-Garcia) at the center.
Pressured by his comatose sister’s medical bills, Cliff chooses to embroil himself in this dangerous drug-manufacturing case. Soon, the story takes such a surreal turn you will wonder if Cliff’s psychosis is contagious or if you got a contact high from all the psychoactive drugs. The highly stylized film uses black and white footage and paired with the oddness of the plot, many viewers will assume David Lynch’s Eraserhead or David Aronofsky’s Pi heavily influenced Martin.
Amoroso plays in a horrifying film noir that combines gore and detective skills as he shows the intricacies of his character. Typical of most detective stories, the leading man possesses an impeccable attention to detail, and while the character does get portrayed as the traditional uptight impersonable loner, Amoroso adds a certain level of endearment and charm to the character.
It is unclear how many voices live within his head because only one seems to take on specific characteristics or roles, and that is the narrator’s voice that delves out exposition for us. And while the inclusion of Cliff’s symptoms creates an interesting character, the voices sometimes become a distraction from the dialogue or the action. The voices are quiet and without subtitles or headphones it will be difficult to understand and if you watch the film in a crowded movie theatre, it might feel like some of the patrons are talking during the movie.
Martin takes a really interesting approach to mental disabilities because so often psychosis becomes heavily associated with violence. Films like Split and The Visit vilify mental illness (check yourself, Shyamalan!) claiming the symptom causes people to murder. Or another harmful trope used in films makes the ‘cure’ of the disorder the main focus of the plot and the movie cannot end until the person can ‘go back to normal.’ PSYCHOSIS avoids both of these tropes and lets Cliff exist with his disability yet he is not the villain but the hero. The voices obviously offer challenges for Cliff, but he chooses to view this mental disability as a positive and tries to use the constant bombardment of insight to his advantage.
Pirie Martin’s arthouse thriller PSYCHOSIS transports audiences on a captivating trip through the complex intricacies of mental impairment and a strange tale, creating a cinematic experience that lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled. The movie’s main focus is a thought-provoking examination of mental disability, a topic that is rarely shown in movies with such sensitivity and honesty.
The director’s deft touch is evident in the portrayal of the protagonist, Cliff (superbly portrayed by Amoroso) who grapples with a mental disability that blurs the lines between sane and psychosis. And furthermore, Cliff’s inner world is well mirrored by the absurd scenario of the movie as viewers are taken into a dreamscape of shifting perspectives and fluid realities right from the opening scene.