‘Crazy, Not Insane’: Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary dives deep into the minds of violent killers

“Crazy, Not Insane,” the new HBO documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), is a sprawling, fascinating look at the psychology of murderers. We see most of the film through the eyes of Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a notable psychiatrist who has assessed a number of high-profile killers like Ted Bundy, Mark David Chapman, Arthur Shawcross and Joseph Paul Franklin. From early on in the doc, it is clear that Dr. Lewis’s approach is more focused on what happened in the killer’s childhood that would cause them to kill rather than the specifics of the murder itself.

Lewis posits that in most of the cases she has worked on, there has been some kind of childhood trauma in the murderer’s past, which can lead to a dissociative identity disorder. The documentary, which will be released November 18, 2020 on HBO, shows footage of Lewis interacting with various inmates charged with murder, like Shawcross, who exhibit clear signs of DID.

Her pioneering work has been the subject of criticism within the psychiatric community from people like forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, who opposed her findings in the ’80s and ’90s and still admits in a modern-day interview that he believes DID to be a “hoax.” At one point we see prosecutors try to discredit her on the stand while serving as an expert witness for the defense, even as Lewis shows video clips in court that would seem to back up her arguments.

One of the more thought-provoking elements of the film is Lewis’s belief that murderers, who often experience the kinds of psychological trauma as a child that would lead them to kill, should not get the death penalty. As she suggests, better solutions include institutionalization and/or rehabilitation. The doc lays out how the public discourse around the death penalty has been fraught with people on both sides of the issue arguing their views passionately, leading all the way up to Attorney General William Barr resuming federal executions last year, after being stopped in 2003.

There are a few factors that could help “Crazy, Not Insane” find its way into the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature. One is the sheer pedigree involved. Gibney is one of the most well-known documentarians in the business and he already has another hugely buzzed-about doc out this year, “Totally Under Control.” Academy Award winner Laura Dern is also involved, lending her voice to Lewis’s published writings at multiple points as the narrator. Additionally, the focus of “Crazy, Not Insane” is appealing to a mainstream audience considering the continued success of various films, shows, books and podcasts that center on true crime. In a media landscape where so much of the attention in a murder case goes to how the killer did it, some may find it refreshing to see a real examination as to the deep-rooted reasons that caused them to do it in the first place.

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