On the surface, “Altered Minds” looks like your typical “Sixth Sense” psychological thriller as the characters struggle to get to the truth of what’s terrifying them so deeply, but this description doesn’t do it justice. What we have instead is a deeply thought out and well-constructed thriller which features a strong ensemble of actors and, like the films of Alfred Hitchcock, keeps you wondering and guessing all the way to the very end.
“Altered Minds” opens up on a family reunion which takes place in a town just as cold and frozen over as the one Ang Lee took us to in “The Ice Storm.” However, it turns out we are guests at a funeral of sorts as it is the birthday of Dr. Nathaniel Shellner (Judd Hirsch), and most likely his last as he is suffering through the merciless disease that is lung cancer. Nathaniel was once a celebrated psychiatrist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in treating refugees from war zones who have been afflicted by PTSD. He is surrounded by his loving wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt), his biological son Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and his two adopted children, Harry (C.S. Lee) and Julie (Jaime Ray Newman).
The only one late to the party is Nathaniel’s third adopted child, Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), a horror novelist who is busy looking for an urn containing the remains of the family dog. But when Tommy finally arrives, there comes to be more on his mind as he accuses his father of performing cruel psychological experiments on him and the other family members. What started out as a loving family reunion soon turns into an occasion where bitter resentments and long lost memories arise to where they can be ignored no longer.
The first thing I want to mention about “Altered Minds” is how good the acting is. We’ve known Judd Hirsch for years as an actor who has played endearing characters in “Ordinary People” and “Independence Day,” not to mention his appearances on the television series “Taxi” and “Dear John.” The role of Dr. Nathaniel Shellner is one he could easily have turned into a two-dimensional adult character, but Hirsch reminds us of what a talented actor he is by making him much more. Throughout this movie, he keeps us guessing as to what’s going on in his mind and presents a humane front as he declares he wants nothing but the best for his children. Some actors would be happy to spell everything out for the audience, but Hirsch is far more interested in giving us a well-rounded character, flaws and all, who keeps you wondering if he has a dark side. How dare anyone forget how great an actor he is.
I was also impressed with Ryan O’Nan’s performance as Tommy as he manages to find a balance between appearing insane and being more aware of the reality of things than the others are. Like Hirsch, O’Nan keeps you on edge throughout as he makes Tommy an enigmatic character who may or may not be crazy. His performance helps add to the tension inherent in the story, and he makes everything seem just as unnerving as the movie’s potent and unsettling sound design.
Caroline Lagerfelt is a wonderful presence and plays every scene she’s in just right. C.S. Lee, best known for his work on “Dexter,” gives certain scenes a raw emotional power which is hard to look away from. Jamie Ray Newman makes Julie a wonderfully independent character the others would be smart to rely on when things don’t go their way. Joseph Lyle Taylor is at times a little stiff as Leonard, but he still does solid work in making the character appear more complex than he appears at first.
“Altered Minds” was written and directed by Michael Z. Wechsler, and he said the movie arose from obsessions he could never stop thinking about. Its story definitely has a personal vibe to it, and it does feels like his version of a Stephen King novel. Writing and directing a thriller is always tricky because audiences constantly second guess every move filmmakers make as they are eager to stay one step ahead of the action, and one wrong and foolish step could easily destroy the whole picture. Wechsler, however, keeps us hooked all the way to the end, and it’s hard not to feel as obsessed as the characters are in uncovering any secrets which have been left in the dark for far too long.
It’s also impressive to see what Wechsler was able to accomplish with such a low budget and a very short shooting schedule. A lot of independent movies these days are given ridiculously little time to be made in, and you have to be a bit forgiving if certain elements don’t fall into place because any good movie, let alone any good performance, needs time to be developed to its potential. Many filmmakers these days, however, can only work with the time they are given, and it’s not always enough. Regardless, Wechsler in the time he had managed to put together a very effective thriller which is chilling in its presentation and filled with terrific performances.
There are a lot of movies flying under the radar these days, but “’Altered Minds” is one deserving of your attention. That’s especially the case for you film buffs who like any kind of movie which is especially unnerving and deeply suspenseful. It is written and directed by a filmmaker who sidesteps the easy traps of the genre and delivers us something which keeps us on edge from start to finish. It also allows Judd Hirsch to give one of his best performances in years, and that should be more than enough of a reason to give it a look.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016
* * * ½ out of * * * *