John C. Lyons’s film “Schism” begins with a soporific evening in front of the television, where main character Neil Woodard (Terry T. Smith) inches his way into the basement of his house to investigate the source of unusual noises. A split-second glance of a possible intruder sends Mr. Woodard off-balance, causing him to fall and fracture his right hip. Before he (or you, the viewer) can say “what just happened,” Neil finds himself in recovery at a specialized facility for individuals in similar situations and of the same age group: a short hop, skip, and jump away from senility and eventual death.
Neil settles in with a group of senior citizens at the center (who are there to live out the rest of their lives and not for physical rehabilitation). Days turn into weeks and then months. Though he demonstrates improved mobility and overall physical health, it becomes evident that Mr. Woodard will not be returning to his old life—his family won’t consent to it. Their continued concern over his physical and mental well-being compels them to discourage his release in the foreseeable future.
Approximately halfway through the film, “Schism” takes a David Lynch-esque nervous jog down dark corridors as Mr. Woodard’s emotional and psychological state begins to deteriorate. On top of signs of forgetfulness, Neil experiences hallucinations, including a youthful manifestation of his late wife, a ballroom-dancing couple, and visions of Roger (Don Kirsch), one of the center’s residents (who may or may not have come to a frightful end).
Thematically and narratively, “Schism” presents itself as “the story of one man’s descent into Alzheimer’s dementia”. I do not wish to sink into the issue of “unreliable narrator” and its implications (what Neil sees vs. reality, how he perceives time vs. actual time). Instead, I prefer to consider the more immediate message and sentiment Lyons’s film delivers.
According to Suicide.org, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute of Mental Health, the elderly is “disproportionately more likely to die by suicide.” If “Schism” is remotely accurate in its portrayal of growing old, it’s no wonder that someone sixty-five and older has a higher chance of self-termination than someone sixteen to twenty-five years of age. To discover that the world is not everyone’s oyster or that aiming for the stars could catapult someone into the ceiling might be enough to push a young adult to desperate Shakespearean measures. But to feel unwanted? To involuntarily relinquish self-agency as one had known it, and then admit to oneself that one’s own memories cannot always be trusted? I cannot begin to imagine what it must feel like, but as Lyons gingerly yet plainly suggests in his film, at some juncture, fear and defeat have to be confronted and accepted.