If you want to see a totally sick, dark, and disturbing (yet highly entertaining) portrait of what truly fragmented family dynamics look like, check out Michael Weschler’s new film Altered Minds, starring Judd Hirsch as a retired psychiatrist and family man. (It will be released in theaters as well as to video-on-demand on November 20.)
I won’t give away the plot—you have to experience the twists yourself to fully appreciate the suite of unpleasant emotions that are elicited by this film—but I’ll say this: It represents family dynamics at their worst.
The film takes place in a high-end mansion in a suburb of New York City, and features an ailing, elderly father, his wife, and their four adult children. Let’s just say that not everyone gets along and lots of bad stuff happens.
I attended the New York premiere of the film this week, as well as a panel discussion which included three of my Psychology Today colleagues, Jane Greer, Hara Marano, and Guy Winch, which focused on how powerful negative childhood events can shape one’s psychological development and mental health. As an evolutionist, I’d add one more angle to the dialogue of the issues brought up by this thriller.
Evolutionary Mismatch and Mental Health in the Modern World
In recent decades, zookeepers have come to clearly see how damaging it can be to keep a wild animal in an unnatural environment (such as a monkey in a cage). Monkeys who are raised in cages show all kinds of markers of psychological and behavioral distress. As is well-documented by evolutionary psychologists (see Geher, 2014; Montgomery, 2010), modern Westernized living for humans is very much like living in a cage.
In the film, characters exist in a world full of mismatches—full of ways that do not match the environments that surrounded our ancestors for the lion’s share of human evolution. Here are some specific ways the world presented in Altered Minds is out of sync with ancestral conditions:
Put it all together, and it’s not so surprising that a modern nuclear family—with a father who is a prominent military psychiatrist—will have some major “issues.” As is often the case, an evolutionarily informed approach can help us step back and think about how mismatches from ancestral conditions help us understand the problems of the modern world.
Bottom Line: Want to be creeped out and disturbed for 92 minutes? Want to see a worst-case scenario of the dark side of family dynamics? Can’t get enough of Judd Hirsch? Then check out Altered Minds. It's certainly not a feel-good film, but definitely one worth watching.
Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Montgomery, J. (2010). The Answer Model: A New Path to Healing. TAM Books.
Smith, D. L. (2009). The most dangerous animal. New York: St. Marten’s Griffin