Movies are escapism. Audiences can disappear into the cataclysmic misadventures of giant robots, they can explore new worlds on alien planets, and if they’re feeling brave enough, they can even subject themselves to horror at its most impossible, but still equally terrifying. Then again, however, some movies aren’t escapism at all. Sometimes, movies are windows into heightened emotional situations; storylines that might seem familiar, but are significantly more intense. Which brings us to the emotional breakdown.
When movies opt of out fictional splendor in exchange for heightened human emotion, the actors involved are in their prime. They finally get the chance to show off what all the hours and money they spent on acting classes actually did for them. For the audience, however, it has the potential to become an experience. In the right hands, a truly aggressive emotional breakdown has the power to elevate the character beyond your typical sap and woe. If handled properly, it can become classic.
So, in case life wasn’t dramatic enough, it’s time to dig into some solid scene-chewing with the 16 Most Aggressive Emotional Breakdowns In Movies.
16. “I Drink Your Milkshake” – There Will Be Blood
Daniel Day-Lewis has delivered solid performance after solid performance, but his work in There Will Be Blood makes his retirement announcement all the more upsetting. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, Day-Lewis is essentially the personification of the American Dream. He starts off by splitting the difference between chance and opportunity, he crafts an empire out of independence and distrust, and by the end of his run, he’s ended up trading in his soul for some money and a loyal butler.
By the end of the film, he and his longtime nemesis/partner, Eli Sunday (played by Paul Dano), share their final shouting match — which really just turns into Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview showing off just how insane he’s become. He delivers the infamous “I drink your milkshake” scene, murders Sunday with a bowling pin, and ultimately cements his place as Oscar recipient for Best Actor (which he did, in fact, end up winning).
It’s explosive and erratic and even creepily satisfying, but it’s ultimately one of the great emotional breakdowns ever put on film, and reason enough to already miss Day-Lewis before he even starts promoting his final film (with Anderson, no less), Phantom Thread.
15. Jail Cell – Raging Bull
Especially when he was in his prime, Robert De Niro rarely had characters who were “taking it easy.” Between Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Raging Bull (especially), his characters were faced with the sort of emotional turmoil that would make anyone completely understand why an emotional breakdown might grab them by the throat and have its way. And it’s because De Niro took these roles that he’s gone down in history as being one of the greatest actors of all time.
Still, it was his work in Raging Bull that truly cemented this claim. Playing the emotionally disturbed and violently high-strung Jake LaMotta, De Niro becomes someone nearly unrecognizable (and not just because of the prosthetics). When his character is finally tossed into a prison cell, the kettle that’s been boiling up until that point finally bursts, and there we have it — a breakdown that isn’t just emotionally taxing, but physically destructive to boot.
14. Caught Cheating – Silver Linings Playbook
Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano in Silver Linings Playbook doesn’t have it easy. God knows he’s trying, but when his emotions get the better of him, there’s a switch inside of him that is almost impossible to shut off. That said, it’s not entirely his fault. Walking in on your significant other having sex with someone else in your own shower is enough to warrant anybody‘s lack of self-control. So, when he pretty much blacks out, allowing his aggression to take over him, it makes perfect sense.
Now, if he only he hadn’t nearly killed someone in the process…
Silver Linings Playbook is a sort of romantic comedy in its own right, but with a unique David O. Russell spin. Cooper’s entire relationship with Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany (who won an Oscar for her performance) is triggered from this breakdown, which makes it all the more significant. It isn’t just the jumping off point for what is arguably an honest look at the varying degrees of mental health, it’s also the catalyst for what ends up saving him.
13. The Whole Movie – The Babadook
Before he was a gay icon, The Babadook was an emotional saboteur. During the entirety of this film, Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling with the death of her husband, as well as her son’s emotional instability. As it turns out, not everything is quite as it seems, as Amelia herself may very well be the root of all the horrors that are plaguing their lonely home.
The Babadook isn’t the simplest movie to figure out. At first glance, it’s about a dark creature invading this mourning family’s home and doing with them whatever it is a Babadook is wont to do. However, upon second (and third and fourth) viewing, maybe the Babadook isn’t real at all. Maybe it’s just a representation of one woman’s decline into emotional wreckage.
Whatever the case may actually be, it’s safe to say that, whether the monster is real or not, this film is more or less documenting one giant and constant emotional breakdown. The Babadook itself is simply there just to add some visual flair and menace.
12. Church – Bad Lieutenant
Redemption isn’t easy to come by. Just ask Harvey Keitel’s Lieutenant from Bad Lieutenant. He’s a bit of a dirty, rotten scoundrel, and he’s not exactly the kind of character who audiences will necessarily give a damn about rooting for, but like anybody else, there is some good with the bad. He’s not a monster — not really — and even though his pursuits may be marred and his good intentions may stem out of selfishness, there’s a genuine quest for redemption buried deep inside of him (really deep).
Even though the Lieutenant doesn’t seem particularly breakable, he eventually experiences his emotional arc. It happens in a church (how symbolic), and the pains of every inner and outer demon that’s been haunting him is breaching the surface. He knows he’s done wrong, he knows he isn’t perfect… and it’s this breakdown he experiences that encapsulates everything that’s been eating away at him up to this point. It hurts, but as is the case with most emotional breakdowns, it’s healthy.
11. The Whole Movie – Leaving Las Vegas
Nicholas Cage has been known to practice some peculiar antics on screen. Between his “hand” speech in Moonstruck, every monologue he’s given (as the villain) in Face/Off, and how he handles an entire missing person’s investigation in The Wicker Man, his style is… unique. In his Oscar-winning role in Leaving Las Vegas, however, his antics, coupled with a talent for acting that he’s genuinely capable of producing (despite what some of his performances as of late might suggest), are perfectly married. He’s playing a man going through the hell of addiction, and even though most audiences know well enough what sort of mania Cage is capable of putting on screen, he does so with notable precision.
Leaving Las Vegas is a sad, but honest, look at addiction, and Cage’s outlet for this depiction — an alcoholic named Ben Sanderson — is losing himself in ways that are hauntingly realistic. His breakdown isn’t one that happens in the heat of the moment, it’s following him from the very beginning.
10. The Whole Movie – Falling Down
Some people can be dealt some bad hands, but still get on with their lives at the end of the day. Some people accept the fact that life is imperfect, and even though it might tear them apart at times, they move on. William Foster (played by Michael Douglas) is not one of those people. Not when a particularly bad day leaves him stranded without a vehicle and only his seething anger pushing him forward.
Falling Down is a complicated movie, giving audiences a main character who is hardly a hero. Sure, everybody’s had those days where they just want to stop abiding by society’s rules. It all seems too much to bear, and giving up seems up a hell of lot more satisfying than simply giving in. But, for the most part, people endure. Foster’s emotional breakdown follows him like a nasty cold. It just won’t shake. And though the thought of “sticking it to the man” seems encouraging in most cases, he arguably goes a bit too far.
9. Everyone – Magnolia
Reaching the final act of Magnolia is about the time when audiences decide whether or not they actually like this film. It’s safe to say that its use of certain biblical cues warrant that sort of effect. Still, there’s no looking past the individual journeys that all of its many characters are experiencing.
Tom Cruise (who earned himself an Oscar nomination for his performance) as Frank T.J. Mackie alone is a perfect example of what an emotional breakdown has the ability to look like. His particular journey is equal parts selfish and heartbreaking, and witnessing the entire facade he’s built over the course of the entire movie suddenly break in a single moment at his father’s deathbed is so intense and personal that it almost feels wrong to just sit back and watch.
Aside from Cruise, though, Julianne Moore’s Linda is inching towards a breakdown in nearly every scene that she’s given, William H. Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith has lost everything he’s ever earned and wants nothing more than to share love with somebody, and Melora Walters’ Claudia does her best to manage her constant emotional breakdown with drugs, but they hardly manage to do the trick.
8. The Last Fight – Revolutionary Road
When Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet finally got their cinematic reunion post-Titanic, it wasn’t pretty. Not by talent standards, but by their on-screen relationship. Even though it’s technically a love story, they spend most of the film at each other’s throats, hating where they’re at in life, hating who they’ve become, and ultimately hating each other. So, by the time they reach their aggressive opus (aka the fight to end all fights), the respective actors’ talents may be on full display, but so is the emotional decline in their characters.
Revolutionary Road is not the easiest film to watch. The ending is happy, the events leading up to the ending aren’t happy, and its characters are far from happy. It basically encapsulates everything that could ever go wrong in a marriage. Their final fight is explosive, sure, but it’s also traumatizing in a way. These two people could be anybody, which might make anyone watching this movie wonder: do most couples hate each other just as much as these two do?
7. Breaking Silence – Little Miss Sunshine
In the very beginning of Little Miss Sunshine, the individual quirks of all of its characters are given the spotlight. There’s the gay uncle, the excessively systematic father, the drug-addicted grandpa, the desperate mom, the ambitious daughter, and finally, the mute son, Dwayne, played by Paul Dano. They’ve all got their own closeted skeletons to let out for some air, but it’s Dano’s breakdown in the family van that takes the cake for aggressive emotional breakdowns put on screen.
He’s introduced as a mute by choice because he’s trying to find himself. He’s looking for some inner peace, and for all he knows, vocalizing doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. During their family road trip to his sister’s Little Miss Sunshine child beauty competition, he finally snaps. In fact he snaps so aggressively and so suddenly that they physically need to stop the van so he can burst through the doors, nearly trip over his own feet running down a large hill, and scream. It’s therapeutic, and ultimately an emotional changing of the guards for his character, but that shouldn’t by any means take away from how hard it hits when it happens.
6. The Whole Movie – American Psycho
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is losing his damn mind. Your typical financial district suit during the 1980s in New York City, Bateman is the titular American Psycho. On the surface, he’s physically perfected and emotionally stale, but deep down, he’s a monster. Well, in a way, at least.
SPOILER ALERT, but all of the murders that Bateman is guilty of never actually happened. Audiences have simply been witnessing his decline into madness. So, bloody though his mental collapse may be, none of that blood comes at the expense of any actual living people. Bateman’s simply going through the motions — albeit graphically murderous motions. But who can really blame him? Life is tough, and we all have our own unique quirks that help get us through. His just happen to include a significant amount of bloodshed.
5. “Mad As Hell” – Network
The world of media is a hell of a thing. News is necessary in the world, but to keep things interesting (and to maintain a solid audience), networks will do whatever it takes to make sure ratings are never dwindling. For a perfect example of how this works, look no further than Network. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch, who won an Oscar for his performance) loses his damn mind on live television and getting “mad as hell” as he calls BS on the way the media industry is run.
Instead of killing himself live on air after he’s been axed from his news anchor position (which was the original plan), he uses the live feed as his soapbox. He’s tired of how satisfied people tend to be with the status quo. He’s tired of how sedentary the society he’s living in has become. Nobody gets angry when they ought to be anymore. Nobody wants to upset the establishment or rustle any feathers. So, Beale clearly has some opinions, and he casually lets his rage do the talking.
4. “What’s In The Box?” – Se7en
Se7en is somehow very re-watchable, despite how grotesque it has no shame in being. From start to finish, Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) are on the tail of a serial killer known only as John Doe. They happen upon elaborate murder scenes inspired by the seven deadly sins (hence the title), leaving absolutely no reason to question why anyone involved with the case wouldn’t feel completely broken by the end of it. Oddly enough, the detectives manage to keep their cool for the most part — until the final scene, that is.
When Mills discovers that the killer has cut off his wife’s head and delivered it to him in a cardboard box, Somerset does everything in his power to keep his partner calm. Obviously, though, that doesn’t work, and Mills ultimately breaks down in a fairly understandable way, considering the circumstances.
To make matters worse, sadly, is the fact that being so affected by his wife’s death was all part of Doe’s plan, and ultimately killing him out of revenge helped him complete the murderous goal he set out on from the very beginning.
3. The Whole Movie (basically) – The Shining
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) just wants to write his story. He’s got the outline, he’s got the quiet, isolated setting, and he’s got the company of his wife and child. Now, if only the evil ghosts in the hotel didn’t want to channel his son’s psychic powers to charge their supernatural power supply in order to be worse than they already are… this could have been a perfectly pleasant getaway.
Throughout the film, Jack is nearing rock bottom. He’s clearly losing his grasp on reality, and slowly but surely, good ol’ Jack is turning rotten. In fact, his mental collapse is so intense that he ends up deciding that bashing in his family’s heads with an axe seems like the best option available to him. So, that’s exactly what he sets out to do.
The ghosts in this story are one thing, but Jack hunting his wife and son down as a result of a complete mental/emotional breakdown is where the true horror comes from in The Shining. That’s what really gets under the audience’s skin.
2. The End – The Mist
Morbidly perfect though the ending might be, The Mist is a tough pill to swallow. Everything that happens in this movie is solid. The mood, the pacing, the monsters… it equally does justice to Stephen King’s writing, while also crafting a genuinely entertaining horror thriller doubling as a claustrophobic dissection of human behavior.
But seriously, that ending…
Taking the noble route, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) decides to put the remaining members of his party out of their misery before the monsters from the mist come to finish them off themselves. Dark though it may be, he’s doing them a favor, sacrificing himself, really, in that he alone will have to face a painful death. However, once he realizes that the military is literally right behind them, ready to offer some help, his nightmare comes full circle. Had he just waited another thirty seconds, all would have been well. Alas, such is the life of a Stephen King character. There’s no point in counting on a happy ending.
1. “Show Me The Blueprints” – The Aviator
The Aviator should be a mess, but it’s not. For a while, it’s about making movies during Hollywood’s golden era. Then it’s about making airplanes and revolutionizing public air travel. But tangled in between is a complicated story about mental illness. In the hands of another director/actor duo, it could have crashed and burned, but with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio at the helm, the only crashing and burning happens on screen — on purpose.
It’s clear from the get-go that something is off with real-life eccentric, Howard Hughes (played by DiCaprio). His mental ticks tend to get the better of him, and as the film progresses, his mind starts to falter more and more. By the end, he essentially throws in the towel and no longer has the mental strength to hold himself together anymore. He cracks more often than not, but his failure to control himself is put front and center when he asks his engineer friend Glenn Odekirk to show him the blueprints for one of their new models. Incapable of stopping himself from repeating the same line over and over again, Hughes flees to his car, cups his hands against his mouth, and breaks down over the realization that his grasp on reality is truly ending.
Are these breakdowns aggressive and emotional enough for you? Think another one ought to be on the list? Let us know in the comments!
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