Perhaps film’s greatest power is its ability to make us empathize. With such an immersive medium, a well-made movie can convince us in just two hours to care deeply about outlandish fictional characters and their concerns. All it takes is a little competent cinematography and committed acting to make an audience understand and identify with almost any protagonist.
So what about when that protagonist whose eyes we’re seeing through isn’t the most reliable narrator? Many directors have employed this singular power of film to make audiences empathize with unconventional characters, especially those suffering from deteriorating mental health. Mental illness is a difficult thing to grasp looking from the outside-in, but these movies each manage to say something unique on the subject by putting us in the shoes of a character on the brink of insanity. These are 15 amazing movies about people going crazy.
15. Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky’s emotionally-exhausting Requiem for a Dream features a graphic descent into heroin addiction and one infamously humiliating sexual performance, but its most memorable segment is about a woman and her fridge. Ellen Burstyn plays Sara Goldfarb, an aging widow who gets most of her companionship through television infomercials and game shows.
A misleading call convinces Sara that she’ll soon be appearing on her favorite game show, so she puts herself on a strict diet to lose weight in advance. But alone, she can’t resist — particularly when the fridge appears to be growling at her. As she becomes more frantic waiting for an occasion that will never come, an unscrupulous doctor gives Sara a prescription for amphetamine weight loss pills. Her psychosis only worsens from there, as she experiences delusions and is committed to a psychiatric institution where she undergoes electroconvulsive therapy. In one of the most memorably devastating endings in recent film history, Sara ends the film in a near-vegetative state, still dreaming of her impending appearance on TV.
14. The Shining
For most of its running time, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a ghost story without the ghosts. Instead, we see the everyday activities of the emotionally-distant Torrance family as they while away a lonely winter as caretakers for the Overlook Hotel. Fragile matriarch Wendy tries to keep everything together in spite of her husband Jack’s writer’s block leading to violent outbursts, as well as her son Danny’s psychic visions and increased reliance on speaking through an imaginary friend called “Tony.”
All hell breaks loose as the ghosts slowly reveal themselves — or maybe it’s just a side-effect of the family’s declining mental health. Jack imagines himself amongst a ballroom of swinging socialites, but it’s Wendy — earlier noted as a “scary movie fanatic” — who sees most of the specter upon running from her newly-murderous husband in the third act.
Repulsion is a true psychological horror film, focused on the debilitating, and eventually, violent paranoia experienced by a gorgeous Belgian manicurist named Carol (Catherine Deneuve). Despite her good looks, she’s awkward around men and disturbed to hear the sounds of her sister having sex in the apartment they share.
As often happens, isolation is the catalyst for Carol’s worsening psychosis, as her sister departs for a vacation, leaving her alone in the apartment. We see glimpses of some form of sexual abuse in her past, and director Roman Polanski makes her related fears of intimacy manifest through unnerving sound design and hallucinatory black-and-white images like that of a dozen groping hands emerging from the apartment’s walls. Eventually, her paranoid distrust of the men who seem to see her only as a sexual object turns to murderous rage.
12. The Tenant
The least well-known entry in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” which includes Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, is as funny as it is frightening. Polanski himself stars as the timid Trelkovsky, who moves into a Paris apartment whose previous tenant committed suicide. He becomes romantically involved with a friend of the former tenant while enduring endless haranguing from his new landlord and neighbors for having friends over at night.
The largely plotless film finds Trelkovsky descending into paranoia so gradually that it’s difficult to determine when his perspective becomes unreliable. It seems as though everyone is grooming him to follow in the footsteps of the previous tenant’s suicide, with the local cafe serving him her meals and the neighbors watching him through binoculars from across the courtyard. The enigmatic ending to the film doesn’t explain much, but it does double down on the themes of finding oneself trapped into a life that isn’t one’s own, and being unable to communicate anything — beyond a frantic, and promptly ignored, scream for help.
11. Jacob’s Ladder
Flashbacks of violent Vietnam combat come rushing back to former soldier Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) as he tries to go about being an ordinary civilian in 1970s New York City. But the horrors aren’t limited to his flashbacks — they’re in the abandoned subway station he alone discovers, the faceless figures he glimpses lurking in the shadows, the brief encounters he has with his youngest son, who was killed in a car accident several years before. Is this simply a case of severe PTSD, or something more?
Jacob’s hallucinations and a meeting with his former battalion buddies lead him to a conspiracy concerning an experimental aggression-increasing drug the government secretly administered to its own soldiers. Only after enduring stark visions of hell and a hospital overwhelmed with rotting decay does Jacob come to understand and accept what actually happened to him. But until then, director Adrian Lyne has audiences sifting through clues just like Jacob, doing their best to separate reality from delusion.
10. Black Swan
A ballet dancer preparing for a production of Swan Lake doesn’t sound like the typical setup for a psychological thriller, but it’s incredibly effective as one in the hands of Requiem-veteran Darren Aronofsky. Natalie Portman’s committed Nina is already fragile at the film’s start, and her desire to be perfect in the play’s starring role as well as a sense of competition with new dance Lily soon send her down the rabbit hole.
As Nina begins putting immense pressure on herself, she catches glimpses of a dark doppelganger stalking her, discovers unexplained scratch marks on her back, and tries peeling away a hangnail that just keeps peeling. By chronicling the physical and psychological tolls incurred by an ambitious artist striving for perfection, Black Swan is about much more than just ballet.
9. The Babadook
The best horror movies feature horrors that work as metaphors as well as just plain old monsters. The Babadook certainly qualifies, as the film finds a mother named Amelia straining to cope with her shrill and troubled son Samuel in the wake of her husband’s death. The plot kicks in when she discovers the titular children’s book on her son’s bookshelf and reads of the top-hatted Mr. Babadook, who torments victims who try to deny its existence.
Sleep deprivation and a series of strange events turn mother and son against each other, as Samuel blames the Babadook and Amelia blames the son she’s slowly come to resent. Her refusal to acknowledge the Babadook makes her vulnerable to possession by it, and she comes very close to harming or even killing her son before regaining control. In the end, her taming of the Babadook — likely a metaphor for grief, death, and a whole lot more — puts a hopeful spin on this story of learning to live after suffering loss.
8. Shock Corridor
A journalist’s undercover stay in a mental institution reveals the people driven mad by political circumstance in director Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. To get to the bottom of a much-publicized murder, Johnny Barrett checks himself into the mental hospital where it took place, telling tales of an incestuous relationship with his “sister,” who is actually just his girlfriend posing as such.
In his investigation, he primarily speaks with three patients — one a former soldier brainwashed into being a communist in Korea and who now believes himself to be a Confederate general, a second an atomic scientist reverted back to the mental age of a six-year-old after seeing the damage done by his inventions, and another a black man driven by prejudice to reimagine himself as a Ku Klux Klan member. Through interviews with these victims of societal ills, Barrett discovers the identity of the killer, but not until after his mind has been permanently damaged by his stay in the institution.
7. Session 9
The biggest scares come not from imagery but from sounds in Session 9, a film wherein an asbestos abatement crew sets out to clean up an abandoned mental hospital. Soon after beginning, they discover a series of session tapes featuring interviews with a patient suffering from dissociative identity disorder.
Tensions and unease escalate among the crew as one of their own goes missing, and the team’s leader Gordon — in the midst of marital and financial troubles — plays through the session tapes leading up to the final, titular session 9. Gradually it becomes clear that “Simon,” the most violent of the patient’s various identities, still lingers in these abandoned corridors. It’s a rather convincing depiction of a haunting, wherein a setting’s tragic past combines with someone’s weakened mental state to wreak new havoc.
6. Take Shelter
Director Jeff Nichols’ take on insanity is a little more subdued, and consequently a lot more frightening for being so plausible. Michael Shannon stars as Curtis, a husband and father who begins experiencing disturbing premonitions of an impending natural disaster. Only he and his wife are acutely aware of his family’s history of mental illness, and in fact, his mother’s paranoid schizophrenia emerged when she was about the age Curtis is now.
Still, Curtis begins jeopardizing his livelihood by borrowing tools to build a shelter from his prophesied storm, and even more seriously jeopardizing his family with his volatility and commitment to his visions. Take Shelter has another ending that casts everything into doubt, but it’s fitting for a film all about the uncertainty involved in real-life mental illness.
5. Observe and Report
Observe and Report was released at the peak of Seth Rogen’s burgeoning comedy stardom, and sold as another caper about a doofus mall cop caper in the same year as Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It was released to mixed reviews and the worst box office returns of any major film in Rogen’s career — probably because the film turned out to be less a madcap caper than a suburban black comedy retelling of Taxi Driver.
Rogen fully commits as the socially maladjusted Ronnie, a manic-depressive mall cop with a lust for power that worsens along with his fragile mental stability. As laughably clueless as he is genuinely dangerous, Ronnie fails the psychological exam to become a police officer, and so directs his masculine delusions of power elsewhere by trying to kill the bad guy and win the girl — in this case, the bad guy being a mysterious mall flasher, and the girl being the vapid makeup counter employee with whom Ronnie is obsessed.
Antichrist is not for the weak of heart. It concerns an unnamed couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose infant son crawls through an open window while they are having sex. The mother feels responsible for his death and falls into a depression, so her psychiatrist husband makes the mistake of treating her himself with a retreat to an isolated forest cabin. He intends to stay celibate while treating her, but she suffers manic and increasingly violent episodes and demands sex to escape her pain.
Easily the most disturbing film of Danish director Lars von Trier’s “depression trilogy,” Antichrist takes an unflinching look at the hopelessness of a chaotic world through the eyes of someone suffering from depression, as von Trier admitted he was during the years he spent rewriting the script after his executive producer revealed its original ending.
3. Barton Fink
The Coen brothers wrote this 1991 Palme d’Or winner after their writing progress on another film (that would become Miller’s Crossing) slowed to a halt — which may be the reason why Barton Fink is so focused upon writer’s block and its effect on what the film refers to as “the life of the mind.”
In this case, that mind belongs to pretentious playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro), who moves to 1940s Hollywood with hopes of writing socially-aware movies to make a difference. Instead, he ends up stuck on the first line of a “wrestling picture,” fixated by the mysterious noises of his tiny hotel room and the surface-level working class milieu of new neighbor Charlie (John Goodman, at maybe the best he’s ever been). Since the Coens were influenced by Polanski films such as the aforementioned Repulsion and The Tenant, nothing is certain in Barton Fink, but that goes a long way to helping viewers understand the fractured mental state of its insulated protagonist.
2. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese’s portrait-in-film of a lonely Vietnam vet working as a taxi driver in the New York slums remains cinema’s definitive character study of someone going crazy. Robert De Niro initially charms as the bashful Travis Bickle, who becomes just a tad creepier when, with all sincerity, he takes a date to the porno theater where he spends many of his off-hours. Eventually, Travis’s emotional isolation and ideas of masculine heroism — again, kill the bad guys and save the girl — combine to lead him towards violent fantasies of taking out the “scum” of society.
The tonally jarring ending has led some to claim the final scene may take place only in Travis’s mind, but the more disturbing reading may be just that society will sanction his violent tendencies as long as they’re in the right context — whether it’s killing commies abroad, or members of the criminal underclass at home.
Just as Antichrist might be the world as seen by someone with depression, Eraserhead may be a vision of the modern world as seen by someone suffering from severe, severe anxiety. David Lynch‘s debut feature takes place in a claustrophobic apartment building within a black-and-white industrial wasteland, where a man (played to stonefaced perfection by Lynch veteran Jack Nance) finds himself the unwitting father and sole caretaker of a mutant child that does nothing but wail in pain day after day.
Trapped in this miserable surrealist distortion of fatherhood, he finds his would-be wife with another man and fantasizes about a singing “Lady in the Radiator” beckoning him to join her “in heaven.” When finally he can take no more, he stabs his unnatural son and seemingly retreats into this fantasy for good.
What are some of your favorite films about mental illness? Let us know in the comments.
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