Strangers on a Plain: Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian

02/12/2014 4:00 AM |

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Troubled Native American veteran Jimmy Picard is not the first curious case to attract the restless attention of filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, who always welcomes the challenge. Set in the late 1940s, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian closely observes the slow but sure treatment of an ambiguously afflicted Blackfoot (Benicio Del Toro) by Hungarian-Jewish anthropologist Georges Devereux, played by Mathieu Amalric—who was a memorable eccentric forced into treatment in Desplechin’s exuberant 2005 film Kings and Queen. Desplechin’s latest shows the director at his most straightforward, excelling at depicting the drama of (self-)awareness without turning psychoanalysis into a lock-and-key demonstration as so often occurs in the movies.

Devereux is invited to Topeka for consultation after Jimmy’s migraine-like spells flummox the staff of the Menninger Clinic. As an anthropologist with experience among the Mojave, he brings cross-cultural expertise to his treatment and an embedded critique to the very genre of the psychoanalytic drama (not least through Devereux’s self-realization as a “spirit helper”). Against the backdrop of life going on for both doctor and patient, Devereux finds the ways into (and words for) Jimmy’s sense of self and his problems, with Del Toro’s considered delivery (and sculpturally fascinating face) posing a striking contrast of presence with the never entirely containable Amalric in neat old suit and rimless glasses. Devereux’s insights and curiosity garner trust and friendship as they unpack Jimmy’s complex past with the women in his life, the dignity and the weaknesses; Desplechin’s visual take on each scene is characteristically fresh, in framing and camera angle, shaded empathically now and again by the score from Howard Shore (David Cronenberg’s go-to music man).

This drama that’s partly about translation and interpretation is also Desplechin’s first English-language feature, revisiting an era in movies that used psychologists in less interesting ways than the problems they’d treat. Its Kansas and Montana settings (the latter where Jimmy’s mothering sister runs her ranch) feel lived-in, but it’s a film deeply invested in mapping a man’s mental geography and feeling some way toward his soul—not the “human spirit” of Oscar blurbs but some shifting, genuinely alive amalgam in all its fragility and fortitude.

Opens February 14 at Lincoln Center