When the title character of Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) – an anguished man stuck somewhere between dreaming and reality – reveals that he sees himself standing atop a great, big wall when he closes his eyes, it’s easy to envision that we’re standing up there too, gazing out to the other side.
But what for the film is a metaphor for indecisiveness means something different for us. Beyond the wall are the expectations of where the story might be headed once he finally chooses a side. Unfortunately, what we get is a film that refuses to take any real leaps or plunges, preferring instead to hang back and pace the edges of the divide.
At face value, Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film is an intermittently engaging but mostly dry and claustrophobic glimpse at the nature of psychoanalysis during the postwar period. Yet, scratch at the surface and Jimmy P. also offers up a nuanced look at male identity crisis and the deadening effect of cultural racism on the self.
Benicio del Toro delivers a searing performance as Jimmy, a WWII veteran and member of the Blackfoot Nation who, gripped by severe migraines, nightmares and periodic bouts of blindness and hearing loss, winds up at a Topeka-based VA clinic for brain trauma.
Once there, the hospital’s staff – led by Larry Pine – puzzles over Jimmy’s diagnosis. Is he schizophrenic, his symptoms the result of a skull fracture not yet healed? Or, is it that he’s an American Indian, and viewed as prone to drunkenness and delirium? Suspecting the latter, the staff recruits Georges Devereux (Mathieu Almaric), a playful psychoanalytic anthropologist with a history of studying the Mojave, to get to the bottom of things.
Casual racism like this permeates the film, and although Jimmy brushes it off – he seems unfazed, for instance, when a doctor offhandedly refers to him as ‘Chief’ – the impact clearly resonates. Other recurring themes, such as sexuality, abuse, abandonment and the fear of castration, clutter up his dreamscape and hang heavily over each bout of analysis.
However, as a straight-up drama, Jimmy P. has a narrow focus, sticking to the procedural side of psychoanalysis and leaving little room for much else. The script, penned by Desplechin along with Kent Jones and Julie Peyr, is based on a true story and avoids many of the tropes we’ve come to expect from the genre. Instead, it dutifully follows Jimmy from session to session, using the talking cure to progressively escape the drab confines of the hospital and flesh out a richer, more compelling backstory for its title character.
It can be dull, but it works in its own strange way. Especially with Devereux, who, rather than receding into the clinic’s foreground of gnarled furnishings and peeling floral wallpaper like a good Freudian might, opts to push himself further into Jimmy’s life as the sessions unfold.
And it makes sense – as a Hungarian Jew by birth who left his native land during the death knell of the Weimar Republic, Devereux’s in the business of appropriating cultural identities. Once in Jimmy’s world, he unabashedly mines it for details about the Blackfoot tribe and chips away at any semblance of objectivity.
But the effect is also immediate: a friendship begins to develop. The closer they get, the easier it becomes to draw parallels between doctor and patient, particularly when it comes to women. Devereux’s relationship with a married socialite (Gina McKee) is a subplot that stalls for the most part, but at times provides the film with some much-needed separation from psychoanalysis.
For a film with such an overarching sense of bigness – much of Jimmy’s past is beautifully framed by the vast openness of the Great Plains, with its haystacks, rolling fields and sprawling ranches – Jimmy P. feels cooped up.
Hung up on its source material, the film’s revelations are painstakingly drawn out, and ultimately the drama feels too studied and too bloodless. By the end, you get the feeling that you’ve been running down the clock on a session the entire time, and waiting for the great leap forward that will never come.
Bostonian readers: Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) is now showing at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.