Festivals Movie Reviews

DOC NYC 2020: “Crazy, Not Insane” Review

Alex Gibney's new documentary, "Crazy, Not Insane", explores the "why" behind the conduct of serial killers.

“Do you ever wonder why you don’t murder?” Dr. Dorothy Lewis has spent a big part of her life trying to answer this question by researching serial killers and focusing on the why instead of the how. Lewis argues that these people are deeply abused individuals whose crimes are a result of their traumatized past. In his new documentary, “Crazy, Not Insane”, director Alex Gibney takes a dive into her knowledge and experiences with fascinating and quite disturbing results.

To create this film, Gibney uses an extensive interview with Lewis, narrations from her personal notes and footage from trials and interviews she conducted with death row inmates such as Ted Bundy, Johnny Garrett and Arthur Shawcross. If there’s no footage available, Gibney illustrates the testimonies with a chalkboard-like animation of black and white sketches. All of this works thanks to Lewis’s infectious energy and dark humor; she passionately and tactfully describes every case without overstepping any boundaries.

Lewis is considered a pioneer on studies about the relationship between brain irregularities and childhood abuse. She diagnosed dissociative identity disorder in many of her subjects and argued that their crimes were committed by their alternate personalities. We delve into this argument thanks to the aforementioned interviews in which Lewis calmly talks with serial killers. Here, you’ll witness some very interesting yet creepy footage of the criminals constantly changing their whole demeanor when talking with disturbing detail about their actions and abusive past.

But the psychiatrist’s pioneering claims proved to be very controversial. By questioning the amount of responsibility these criminals had for their actions, she was met with ridicule and disbelief by peers, judges and juries. The film explores the battle between law and psychiatry. How much should the law take into account the mental state of the criminal? If their behavior is the end product of a history of trauma, how harshly should they be judged? How can you measure the impact of the multiple dissociative identities disorder? 

Lewis thinks that these criminals should be locked up but does not agree with the death penalty, which opens a new set of philosophical questions that get even harder to answer when she interviews a “travelling executioner.” This person was hired to electrocute death row inmates and shows some startling behavior that could be compared to those of the serial killers Lewis had previously talked to. This proves to be one of the most eerie moments of a documentary already filled with violent tales.

The last chunk of “Crazy, Not Insane” is focused on haunting revelations about the possible reasonings behind Ted Bundy’s actions. Unlike the recent docuseries focused on his persona, this doesn’t feel exploitative at all. Instead, it all adds to the director’s desire to understand what’s really behind a murderer and to generate a conversation about the death penalty. Lewis is not always convincing, and sometimes she bends too much into “killers are victims” territory, but that’s one of the most valuable aspects of Gibney’s filmmaking here: He’s challenging you to question her and find your own answers.

“Crazy, Not Insane” was part of DOC NYC 2020 lineup and is now streaming on HBO

Image courtesy of DOC NYC

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