Once a brilliant, Julliard-trained musician and composer, Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson) now lives in a cave in the park. He is severely mentally ill. Images of giant moths and fears of an imaginary villain haunt him. But he still loves his wife Sheila (Tamara Tunie), who appears to him in his hallucinations to give him advice, and his daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a policewoman.
On Valentine’s Day, Romulus finds the dead body of a young man propped up in a tree near his cave. The police think it was an accident. But Romulus believes the young man was murdered. He wants to find the murderer, even though it means that he will have to brave the real and imagined terrors of society’s daily interactions. He begins to think that the murderer is David Leppenraub (Colm Feore) a well-known artist, a photographer who specializes in homoerotic images of savaged and maimed angels. He knows that no one will listen to him. If he accuses the artist, it will be lost among his paranoid ravings. Romulus has to gather evidence. With some new clothes from a lawyer, bemused by his knowledge of music and a call to an old friend from Julliard, Romulus gets invited to Leppenraub’s home.
Romulus, like Leppenraub, is haunted by nightmare images and obsessions. For Romulus, though, they are madness. For Leppenraub, they are art. Romulus’ fears make people feel discomfort and pity. Leppenraub’s make people feel titillated and clever. Romulus must use his madness to understand the killer, but he must use the part of him that is not mad to put the pieces together and make sure that the killer gets caught. Jackson and director Kasi Lemmons deftly blend Romulus’ internal and external worlds. His rational self is represented by imaginary conversations with his estranged wife (a beautiful performance by Tamara Tunie). Feore as Leppenraub and Anne Magnuson as his sister give multi- layered performances that lend weight and complexity to the story.
Parents should know that the movie has very violent images, including dead and mutilated bodies. Characters use very strong language, and there are heterosexual and homosexual references and situations, including a passionate sexual encounter between two people who hardly know each other.
The movie also includes smoking, drinking, and drug use. The scenes depicting Romulus’ delusions may upset some audience members. His illness causes his family a great deal of loss and pain.
Families who see this movie should talk about mental illness and its causes and treatments. How can family members be supportive without being enablers? They may also want to talk about whether art like Leppenraub’s could be a critical and popular success, as portrayed in the movie. Why would Moira react to Romulus the way she did? Why did Bob react the way he did, and was that right? What are some of the feelings that Lulu has about Romulus?
Families who enjoy this movie will also like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Jackson’s brief but memorable performance as a drug addict in “Jungle Fever” (both for mature audiences).