December was a tough month for therapists at your local multiplex.
Historically, artistic depictions of the vocation oscillate between two polarities:
Either, they’re quacks who drum up patients’ existential problems to ensure the checks keep rolling in, OR, they’re modern saviors who conversationally illuminate long-repressed truths from deep within the tortured souls on their couches (they’re also saviors for lazy screenwriters looking for an easy device to get their characters to divulge what they’re thinking and feeling directly to the audience).
But both Nightmare Alley and The Matrix Resurrections pitch their therapists as even more nefarious than mere money-grubbing facactas.
Well, this evaluation rings at least partially true for Cate Blanchett’s therapist character in Nightmare Alley. In a movie about the inextricability of deception from our notions of identity perception and conception, Blanchett’s therapist acts as a key cog in deluding her patients’ sense of reality. She feeds their secrets to Bradley Cooper’s illusionist character, making them all too willing to fork over their dough — which Cooper and Blanchett divvy up — to someone who seems capable of supernaturally tapping into the universe’s hidden answers to resolve their personal plights. If a therapist is an external translator and communicator of internal truth, then Blanchett manipulates this intimate, trusting role to distort her patients’ worldviews, deceiving them into believing a version that benefits herself.
The Matrix Resurrections takes this idea of “therapist as reality reshaper” steps further; Neil Patrick Harris’ therapist character turns out to be humanity’s nemesis! Given Neo’s potential to topple the status quo that Harris finds himself on top of, he becomes Neo’s shrink to drape the wool over this sheeple’s eyes, masking his exploitation of human existence. Rather than striving for enlightenment, Harris preaches indoctrination into convention. Obviously Neo isn’t The One; obviously there’s no reality beyond the visual spectrum; obviously he’s suffering from mental illness — delusions of grandeur, to be specific — and there’s only one cure: medication, medication, and additional sessions. If Harris can convince Neo to buy into this false philosophy of placation, then he can continue to gain from the corrosive conditions of their current reality. Control minds, control the world. Conformity of thought = uniformity of power.
In both movies, therapy is self-interest masquerading as empathetic wisdom.