Review: Cary Fukunaga’s 'Maniac' Tackles Mental Health Like No Other

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This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.

After Beasts of No Nation and a tumultuous run on IT, Cary Joji Fukunaga has teamed up with Netflix again to bring us his latest project, Maniac: a retro-future drama about mental health. With it, Fukunaga maintains his serious subject matter like that of True Detective or Beasts of No Nation, but adds in some dark comedy to create brevity in a rather serious topic. The result is a ten part mini-series that commentates on the mental struggles that come with traumatizing events and how the road to recovery isn’t as easy as everyone thinks it is.

Maniac is not a traditional film ‘film,’ but its construction speaks otherwise. It’s a ten episode mini series on Netflix with no theatrical release, so initially one would assume this to be relegated to the TV category, but consider this: there is only one title card, one director across all ten episodes, and there are no opening credits at the beginning of each episode. Think of Maniac in the same vein as Twin Peaks: The ReturnOJ Made in America, or the forthcoming The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; the hairsplitter in all of us might raise question with the division of the ‘film,’ but make no mistake, this feels like one continuous, self-contained piece of cinema.  

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Our main protagonists are Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill): the former a drug abuser who uses to repress the memories of her past, and the later a down on his luck, paranoid schizophrenic who is the odd duck of the family but who is now being called upon to protect the family’s name in court. The two are brought together via a drug trial at the NPB Corporation, a pharmaceutical conglomerate on the verge of creating a new drug therapy which aims to rid the mind of any problem. Together the two undergo the trial phase with the hope they will be absolved of their ailments, but as they progress, they learn that overcoming their demons is something not done easily. 

Intentionally so, Maniac keeps its cards close to its chest. The show operates under a very cryptic plot structure where revelations in both Annie’s and Owen’s narratives are only revealed as they progress through the trial. This structure not only works to engage the audience to watch the next episode, but the piece-meal approach has a mystique to it, opening our protagonist’s past in weird and unconventional ways. Instead of placing events out of order or merely using a flashback, Maniac uses the A-B-C steps of the drug trial to open Annie’s and Owen’s past. After taking each pill (A for agonia, B for behavioral, and C for confrontation), the show enters what it calls a ‘reflection’: a fantasy/dreamlike state where Annie and Owen are put in outlandish scenarios that draw parallels to their own reality. With the exception of the A phase, these scenarios are cryptic, causing audiences to read between the lines in order to understand the internal issues, guilts, and backstories of our characters. This method can be off-putting at first as they pull you out of the series’s established mode, but they often result in profound character moments that are at the core of what makes Maniac so compelling. 

Maniac is interested in the complex issues found in overcoming one’s demons. Both Annie and Owen have a resistance to moving forward from events in their past, and as the trials progress, they try to tackle their own with the help of a ‘magic pill.’ What Fukunaga conveys so well is the unsatisfactory sentiment that comes from the quick and easy solution to our internal struggles. It showcases the difficulty in overcoming these traumas, and that no matter how much we struggle, fight, or combat these inner demons, they never go. They are not fleeting emotions, but rather ones that linger and rear their heads in ugly ways. It says that these struggles are a part of you, that it is ok to grapple with them, and that before you can move past them, you need to reconcile and confront them. Skeletons that inhabit our psyche are not easily vacated with a pill or a quick fix, they are a process that takes time.

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Tying these themes together is Maniac’s retro-future aesthetic and dark comedy. The series most closely resembles that of Spike Jonze’s Her which took on a similar look and feel. Technology that opens one’s mind is bulky and dated looking, tube computers run DOS-like programs, and adverts that could only come from the 80s are all a part of the surreal future Maniac paints. In tandem with it is the use of dark comedy which keeps things light. This isn’t a Marvel affair where the humor kills the tone, but rather, the humor here is intrinsically tied to the film’s tonal consistency. Jonah Hill dressed up like Post Malone while having a serious moment with someone who radiates heat waves is something I would never think would work, but it actually manages to hit home deep and substantive meaning. However, there is the occasional outlandish moment that doesn’t work; these moments can most commonly be sourced from the aforementioned ‘reflection’ sequences and can have eyebrow-raising effects, but the missteps are completely overshadowed by the times when it does work because when it does, boy is it good.

As a side note, I think Dan Romer’s score is excellent. I don’t have too much to say, but there are great standout pieces like ‘Annie and Owen’ and ‘Blind Spots’ that help convey a tremendous sense of sympathy, struggle, and heightened emotion. It’s all so beautiful and I love it dearly. 

For all its abnormalities and strangeness, Maniac has something to say and an unequivocally unique voice in saying it. From its stylish dressings to its cryptic narrative, Fukunaga has made a ten episode series that not only presents the bleak realities of mental illness, but promotes the process of getting better, and surprisingly, it is a series I wish to revisit so I may find new meaning in all its nuance and subtext, something I can’t say that about any other show. Simply put, Maniac is unforgettable.

Score: 4.25/5