This is a spoiler-free review.
The louder a film insists it’s based on real events, the more insecure it seems. It like the movie knows it doesn’t have the goods and wants to remind you that this all really happened so don’t be too mean to the characters involved or point out unrealistic dialogue or plot holes.
Brain on Fire’s opening credits scream “BASED ON REAL EVENTS” as loud as they possibly can.
Brain on Fire, based on the memoir of the same name by Susannah Cahalan, is about one woman and the mysterious illness that terrorizes her. The woman is Cahalan, herself (played by ChloëGrace Moretz), a young, energetic journalist who works at The New York Post and spends her days dreaming up satisfyingly New York Post-ian headlines about illegal butt injections.
She has solid relationships with her coworker Margo (Jenny Slate), her boss Richard (Tyler Perry), her sort-of boyfriend Stephen (Thomas Mann) and her improbably attractive parents Tom and Rhona (The Hobbit’s Richard Armitage and our old Canadian friend Carrie-Anne Moss, who we really need to see a lot of more of).
Susannah is your typical New York working millennial, healthy and happy, until one day she’s no longer healthy.
There’s been a long, well-tread critical motif that looks at inanimate objects or concepts in films and television as characters. Before it was thoroughly meme-ified the notion that New York was the “fifth character” in Sex and the City was seen as a perfectly legitimate observation. That trend has long since been retired. Now I must regretfully un-retire it to point out that not only is the disease that injects Susannah a character in Brain on Fire, it’s also the only one worth caring about.
The unnamed (until the end credits at least) illness that attacks Susannah is a fascinating, terrifyingly thorough monster. It attacks her on several fronts with surgical, almost cruel precision. Over the span of just a few weeks Susannah begins to experience: shortness of breath, exhaustion, numbness in extremities, visual and auditory hallucinations, loss of mental acuity, paranoia, seizures, and more.
It feels like this disease has both Gray’s Anatomy and the DSM-IV open on its lap for inspiration as it throws everything it can find at this unsuspected human being. Susannah’s life begins to fall apart as she’s unable to function at work, then at home, then even at hospitals. All the while every blood test, observation, and MRI she receives comes back normal.
The unseen disease is a powerful, compelling adversary. And it’s the only thing in the film that works. You may have noticed that when describing Susannah as a character in the second and third paragraphs, I mostly just listed the relationships she has with other human beings along with some general characteristics of journalists her age living in New York City. That’s because Susannah is a remarkably thin character
Susannah, despite being based on a real, undoubtedly complex and interesting person is an absolute cinematic nothing. She doesn’t feel like a fleshed out human being, or even a character. She’s just…nothing. The film even introduces a laughably unnecessary voiceover early in which Susannah informs the audience that she works at the New York Post and enjoys doing so as we watch her work at the New York Post and enjoy doing so.
Brain on Fire features an uncommonly strong cast for a film from little-known Irish writer-director Gerard Barrett. Given the events Susannah goes through, however, it’s clear to see what drew Moretz to the role. Susannah presents an opportunity to go incredibly broad. The illness effects her emotions, leading to outbursts of pure joy, fear, and despair. Moretz does a solid, technical job expressing these symptoms but the movie has already betrayed her with an underdeveloped character so she becomes just an actor doing overwrought acting exercises on camera.
The characters around Susannah are inessential at best. All of the adults fill the cinematic archetype of “Tough But Fair” with only Perry as her boss bringing a level of real gravitas. Slate is somehow improbably wasted. Every medical professional introduced is almost a parody of an ignorant, lazy pencil pusher. The doctor declares Susannah merely stressed. Then the therapist declares her merely stressed. And finally, in an almost perfect unintentional application of the comedic rule of three, a third doctor finally acknowledges she’s sick but figures it’s all in her head despite multiple seizures. Tom and Rhona react to him like he’s the doctor from Arrested Development.
When the disease is in full thrall, Brian on Fire becomes marginally more interesting only because the disease is interesting. Susannah is so underdeveloped that it almost doesn’t matter who the disease is effecting. The movie may as well be a PowerPoint presentation at a forensic medical conference. It’s a hell of a compelling PowerPoint though. Despite all of the movie’s flaws, it’s hard not to get invested in wanting to know the name and nature of this illness.
It also helps that in the third act, Dr. Najjar (played by Navid Negahban a.k.a. Amahl Farouk a.k.a. The Shadow King on on FX’s Legion) parachutes in as though he were precious rations from a much better movie sent to rescue a failing one. Negahban is legitimately wonderful in the role, portraying a deeply empathetic, ingenious doctor for a span of around 20 minutes. He almost succeeds in rescuing a movie that tried its hardest to fail.
Still, Brain on Fire doesn’t succeed. All the brilliance of its central medical mystery and the man who would eventually solve it are soundly defeated by the movie’s own lifelessness and laziness. Brain on Fire is like a virus itself, trying to infect an otherwise interest story with its own mediocre movie clichés.