(CNN) The media obsession with serial killers receives a welcome infusion of academic analysis and sobriety in "Crazy, Not Insane," an HBO documentary about psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis and her career-long study of murderers, providing a nuanced view that goes beyond simple labels like "evil."
Directed by the prolific Alex Gibney (whose recent credits include the political docs "Agents of Chaos" and "Totally Under Control"), the film draws extensively from interviews Lewis conducted with death-row inmates, among them such notorious figures as Ted Bundy -- who Lewis interviewed before his execution -- and Arthur Shawcross, convicted in the murders of eleven women.
Lewis' pioneering work included identifying dissociative personality disorders (or multiple personalities) in some of her subjects, as well as how childhood trauma and brain irregularities factor into the longstanding question as to why certain people kill. Her videotaped interactions with Shawcross revealed what appear to be alternate personalities, including a vengeful mother persona that can't help but evoke creepy echoes of "Psycho."
Those explanations, notably, met fierce resistance both in courtrooms -- where prosecutors sought to belittle and dismiss her testimony -- and certain media circles, with video of then-Fox News host Bill O'Reilly teeing off on Lewis for daring to reject his assertion that killers are "evil."
"Evil is a religious concept, it's not a scientific concept," Lewis tells him.
Lewis acknowledges that in the early days, "I got ridiculed a lot" as she ventured into the public square, a point underscored by clips of the vigorous cross-examination she faced during trial appearances as an expert witness.
That's primarily because her research complicates issues of crime and punishment, cutting to the heart of not only why people commit heinous crimes but questioning how much responsibility they should bear for them and the imposition of the death penalty. In her view, "Murderers are made, not born."
Gibney employs various creative devices in making the film, with occasional snippets of animation and Laura Dern reading from Lewis' writings. At its core, "Crazy, Not Insane" challenges basic assumptions about serial killers, a subgenre of true crime so disproportionately prevalent that interest in Bundy has enjoyed a recent resurgence, while movies and TV channels like Oxygen and Investigation Discovery devote untold hours to it.
As colleagues note, Lewis paid a price for being at the forefront of theories that forced the justice system to consider more complex explanations of behavior that appears, on its face, insane. While the documentary might not convince those who prefer a black-and-white picture of crime and justice, for anybody with an open mind, it'll definitely make you think.
"Crazy, Not Insane" premieres Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.