A phenomenal television movie of a compelling story, even if the story isn't completely true
This review comes from my Letterboxd page, where I review every movie I see.
Before we get started, I wanted to mention that I bought the 187-minute long DVD. For some reason, Wikipedia and Letterboxd state that the full, unedited cut is 198 minutes long, but a crucial scene that Wikipedia said was edited out of certain cuts is in the version I watched tonight. The only logical assumption I can make from this is that 198-minute length takes the commercials that are edited out of the DVD for obvious reasons into account, but I can't confirm that. I'm going to assume I have seen the full, unedited movie, but there may be some longer version that's completely lost to the sands of time out there, I have absolutely no idea. Regardless, enough dawdling, let's get into the review.
I've been curious about this movie for a little over a year now when I saw our school's health teacher show it to her class. I haven't gotten the chance to see it until now, but boy, was it worth the wait. This movie gave me everything I wanted and MORE out of it. This is the new standard for me when it comes to television movies. I don't think any television movie is ever gonna top this for me because of just how well-executed it was. This is a beautiful and intense exploration of DID with an engaging story that's truly deserving of a three-hour runtime.
But why were the film and its storytelling so well-executed? Well, for one, I never once actually noticed the writing of this film. There are movies I've seen where I notice the writing and it's realistic enough, but it's nothing spectacular. There are other movies that have great writing and I notice that it's great and/or realistic writing and love the movie even more for it. However, in this instance, I didn't even think for a second that any of this dialogue was written. I'm not sure I've ever been able to check my brain out of the idea that the dialogue I was watching unfold in front of me was written beforehand, but this movie did that for me. I never even thought of it as part of a written screenplay. I just saw it as events happening right before my eyes. That is absolutely incredible.
Of course, we can't go without talking about the performances in this movie. Sally Field gives a truly heartwrenching and committed performance that truly deserved an Emmy win. I know a lot of people nowadays are going to compare the portrayal of Sybil to James McAvoy's portrayal of Kevin in Split, but that's just because of the fact that they were both able to nail switching personalities so perfectly and were both able to distinguish each one with unique vocal patterns and mannerisms. In all honesty, I'm torn at this point between which performance is better because as much as I ADORED McAvoy, I feel like Field gives the much more grounded performance here. However, I loved them both so much, so let's just say I loved them both equally and if you loved McAvoy in Split, you are absolutely going to LOVE watching Field in Sybil. That being said, I don't want to sideline Joanne Woodward here because she gave a performance that was just as good. She was just such a reassuring and charming presence and I loved seeing her and Field work off of each other. The fact that she and Field were nominated in the same category at the Emmys is just as saddening to me as F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce getting nominated for the same category at the Oscars for Amadeus. In both cases, I feel that one of them should have been nominated for Lead Actor/Actress, one should have been nominated for Supporting, and they both should have won together. Oh, well. I suppose the fact that Woodward was nominated makes up for something.
I would have to say my favorite aspect of this movie is the editing. It adds so much to the tension of the film and gets really, REALLY creative. The movie makes a really gutsy choice by deciding to put jumpcuts at certain points to avoid showing the audience Sybil's other personalities. I would say for about the first half-hour of the movie, the movie only shows us the personality of Sybil and the way that she zones out and skips through time in order to give the audience the same feeling of confusion Sybil has about what's happening to her. Once Joanne Woodward's Dr. Wilbur is introduced, we get to actually see Sybil's other personalities and how different they are from each other, allowing the audience to explore her multiple personalities with Wilbur. I think that's an absolutely GENIUS idea and one of only three that I want to talk about here... actually, four, but the fourth one isn't really editing, it's more atmosphere-building, but we'll get into that.
The second editing choice I really loved is that whenever Sybil looks at herself in a mirror, she sees the physical appearance of whatever personality happens to be at the front and leading at that particular time. That is such a great idea because it gives the audience a better idea as to what Sybil sees and makes us more curious about how her brain functions. The third editing choice I loved is a dream sequence that ended up benefitting from the movie's low budget. There's obviously fake special effects that actually give an uncanny feeling to what you're looking at, much like a nightmare would show you incredibly uncanny looking creatures or objects that are incredibly unsettling. There's something chasing her that the movie doesn't cut to in order to avoid having to put CGI into the film, but again, that adds to the dreamy feeling of it: it's like something's chasing her that's not quite there and that isn't quite catching up to her, but she knows is somehow gaining on her. The camerawork makes the scenery feel more abstract, the editing makes it feel more like a really intense dream, it's just such a well-executed scene that uses its lack of budget to make it even MORE disturbing, and I LOVED THAT!!!
Okay, now for the atmosphere building thing I mentioned earlier: the musical score. So much of the music in this film feels off-key like the musicians are playing dissonant strings on their instruments, making the scenes the music plays in (particularly the opening credits) feel unsettling and heightening the tension of the scene. The movie also uses classical compositions to its full advantage, making them terrifying just by the way they're used against characters. Just in general, the editing and musical score combined creates a great sense of visceral tension. Combined with Field's incredible performance, the movie hooks you into wanting to know more about this character, wanting to dive deep into her psyche, wanting to find out more about her past, and once you discover more, genuinely disturbing you. A final revelation that occurs about what truly happened to Sybil made me want to throw up. It was so effective and I absolutely loved that.
Seriously, guys, this movie is incredible. It's intense, it's engaging, it has a lot of charming moments, and it's led by two incredible performances, fantastic editing, and a musical score that constantly leaves you on edge. The only flaws I had with this movie were minor, and in all honesty, they ended up fixing themselves: the over-the-top actions of a mother character are explained by a diagnosis, seemingly unnecessary narration is explained by showing that it's Wilbur playing back tapes she's recorded of her time with Sybil, and as I mentioned earlier, seemingly choppy editing in the first half-hour or so is explained once Dr. Wilbur comes into the picture and Sally Field's incredible performance truly gets the chance to shine. I don't really know what else to say about this film. It's beautiful, it's intense, just track it down and see it.
Letter Grade: A+