I liken Altered Minds (formerly titled The Red Robin) to the 1999 Kevin Bacon film Stir of Echoes and 1995’s The Usual Suspects, in that all three films almost possess you to turn right back around and watch the film with the ending in mind. These three films are about reality bent for a purpose, but Altered Minds takes a psychologically frightening route by having its characters slowly devolve and deconstruct seemingly for no reason, to the point where you almost feel as confused as the characters themselves.
That’s a worthy characteristic of this film given to it by its writer and director, Michael Z. Wechsler, who drops us into the middle of a family gathering at the Shellner home, where patriarch Nathaniel (Judd Hirsch) is dying of cancer and wishes to be with his family one last time before he goes. A former psychiatrist celebrated for his work with veterans, he and his wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt) are joined by three out of their four grown children, Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor), Julie (Jaime Ray Newman), and Harry (C.S. Lee) for what looks like an innocuous sit-down meal, with easy, relaxed banter among the five of them.
However, when fourth child Tommy (Ryan O’Nan) shows up, ranting and raving about the dangers of icicles and looking for an urn in which his dog’s ashes were buried, the family dynamic turns from happy to unsettled to outright unraveling, with dark and sinister memories being dragged from deep within each of their minds. All of this leads to one certainty among Lillian, Leonard, Julie, Harry, and Tommy: Nathaniel is not the heroic man and father they thought he was. The mystery of who they are and what their father might have done to them will keep you rapt until the film cuts to black for the closing credits.
Throughout Altered Minds’ running time, reality and perception are toyed with to the point where we don’t know if we’re watching what’s actually going on, or if we’re in someone’s head and we’re seeing what they want to see or what they think they’re seeing. Wechsler skillfully moves us in and out of everyone’s spheres of consciousness and creates Venn Diagrams of how their memories interact with, jive with, or refute possible explanations of why their lives turned out the way they have.
We’re told Nathaniel’s work had to do with programming mentally-ill veterans after returning from war; Wechsler’s screenplay does the same to us, having made us believe all is right on the surface, but the nagging bubbling under the surface leads to more questions and more revelations. Some are benign; others are impossible to overcome with a simple explanation. Regardless, it’s the way Wechsler reveals layer after layer that makes Altered Minds move with a full head of steam until its undeniably shattering climax.
It also helps that performances are strong all across the board, specifically those from Judd Hirsch and C.S. Lee. Hirsch goes to great lengths to maintain the composure of someone who firmly believes in everything he did and that it was for the greater good, all while trying to keep his family from falling apart. Lee makes the dissolution of his soul and purpose tactile and palpable, full of sorrow, confusion, and regret. Not to take away from the rest of the cast, but these two are standouts in a film full of emotionally-charged performances, making Altered Minds a gem waiting for you to discover.
Update 11/21/15: I wish to dedicate this review to my cat Dudley (a girl cat with a boy’s name), who passed away today. For as long as I’ve been screening movies late night at home, she’s been there with me for all of them, and this was the last one she watched with me.