(Hey guys, this one comes to us from Pat (GimmeABreak). Thanks so much. Great job. -MM)
Sybil is the movie against which all other MPD (multiple personality disorder)/DID (dissociative identity disorder) stories are compared. A Crowded Room didn't fare well in the comparison IMHO.
SETUP and FIRST ACT: the hook should have stopped at the identification of William Milligan as the suspect. That it continued through his arrest gave away the rest of the story. It was like reading the last page of the book first. Between the end of the hook and the end of the first act, many of the secondary characters come across as caricatures – mostly brutal law enforcement officers or inept psychiatrists. One of the public defenders, Gary, has some funny lines and shows some individuality but he's gone in the blink of an eye (and doesn't reappear until the last twenty pages). Some of Billy's personalities are introduced, one of which transforms into an Incredible Hulk-like character in an unintentionally comical way. Virtually all the dialog between Billy, Gary and Judy is exposition and not very interesting exposition at that. There are a number of smaller scenes that don't advance the story (examples – the guards' threat to tattoo numbers on Billy arm and the exchange with Natalie Wood in the day room). The scene in the hearing room is unsatisfying and unrealistic (not sure if it was truncated intentionally but there would have been a trial and Billy would have been confined to a mental hospital rather than being sent away a free man).
SECOND ACT: since we already know the outcome of the story, the second act functions as a history lesson explaining why Billy dissociated and what happened when he did. Unfortunately, it doesn't do it very well. All of the childhood traumas were encapsulated in a single scene of rape by Billy's step-father. While this certainly is a traumatic event, it isn't enough to cause the psychiatric disorder. Neither does it provide justification for the violent nature of the alternate personalities. The timeline is confusing because it switches back and forth between two young Billys, teen-aged Billys, a young adult Billy and an adult Billy. Some of the personalities manifest themselves for the first time when the traumas appear to have stopped so the continued dissociation doesn't make sense. We see Billy as a violent drug dealer and body guard – an thoroughly unlikable character. The action sequences are very well-written but feel completely out-of-place. There are many other scenes showing the various Billy personalities in a variety of locations interacting with a variety of other people and fantasizing about taking revenge against the step-father (or was the Chalmer sequence real – I couldn't tell) but they all feel disconnected – individual sequences rather than part of a cohesive whole. Everything that occurs in the first act is repeated in greater detail on the second half of the second act. Feels like the second act ends on page 111 – twenty pages from the end.
THIRD ACT: the beginning is implausible to the degree that I almost got angry. It's not clear how old Billy was when he was committed but to expect the audience to believe that he was "cured" in less than a year is unreasonable. We see nothing of his treatment but, instead, are presented with a variety of intercuts showing Billy see his other "selves" on video tape with Dr. Caul. The very first opportunity I have to sympathize with Billy is during Gary's summation. Instead of having him speak of the torment the young man experienced, I would like to have seen it in some way much earlier so that I didn't spend the entire read not caring about the main character.
CONCEPT: I'm not sure I can categorize this. It starts out as a crime/courtroom drama but turns into an action flick in the second act then reverts back to the crime/courtroom drama in the third.
CHARACTERS: Billy is never really seen as a sympathetic character (until the end of the third act) inasmuch as his childhood traumas are compressed in this SP to a single incident which, in its presentation, seems hardly enough to cause MPD/DID. He's involved in unsavory activities and comes across as a violent brute rather than as someone we should like or even feel sorry for. Gary, the public defender, was an interesting character but was present in the first act for only a few pages and then again briefly in the third.
DIALOG: most of it was on-the-nose and expository.
STRUCTURE: as mentioned earlier, I believe the hook exposed too much and there was no where to go after that. The second act really dragged for me – it felt like it belonged in a different story. The third act returned to the tone set up in the first act. Billy (and his alter egos) is clearly the main character but is he a protag? I'm not sure. I don't know what he wants and I can't see what he's doing to get it. He's generally passive in the sense that Billy always awakens to discover what someone else (one of the other personalities) has done to him or on his behalf. I guess Billy's other selves are the antags but in order to give substance to the internal battle, the other selves had to be shown as individual people. When all of these selves popped in and out, it was confusing and almost dizzying. I'm not sure what the theme is, either. What kind of message did this story tell? What am I supposed to be thinking about as I leave the theatre?
STORY: seemed like two different writers. Acts one and three told one story and act two was a different story – an action/crime picture. The parts didn't fit well for me and the transitions from first to second to third were jarring and distracting.
GENERAL: I had problems with this because it doesn't ring true based on what I know of MPD/DID. Usually, the other personalities aren't aware of each other so I had a really tough time with all the sequences where the various incarnations of Billy engaged in conversation with each other (and that's what it was – expository conversation).
If I were rewriting this, I'd probably start it out in the Lima facility. Immediately establish sympathy for the main character by showing the torture he was subjected to under the guise of treatment. Then reveal his past – the horrors to which he was exposed and those to which he subjected others – in bits and pieces during the "successful" treatment. Caveat – since Billy Milligan has continued to demonstrate violent behavior (in real life) since his "cure," the ending cannot be a "happily ever after" sort of thing and I don't know how satisfying that will be.
Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.