The goal of most mainstream movies is to entertain us, but over the past 120 years of cinema, sometimes directors have chosen to make films about events that are unsettling and disturbing. I’m not talking about slasher films and gore-infused horror pics, but rather the dramas and thrillers that shine a spotlight on the darker side of human nature. When it is a story based on real events, seeing the horrors of what people have done can be especially gut-wrenching. Fictional films can be equally unsettling, although it can leave us wondering if horrible imagery is exploiting our psyche to make a dollar. In our first post of the year (what a way to kick it off!) we each look at three films that disturbed us.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll freely admit to being squeamish when it comes to portrayals of extreme violence on film. I remember as a kid seeing Scarface over a friend’s house and being really bothered by the chainsaw scene, among others. Yet, when it comes to being disturbed by a movie – when I have trouble sleeping afterward or think about it for days later – sometimes a scene may not be overly graphic, but what it implies or the context makes it disturbing. Skilled directors know that what is not shown can be even more powerful (think about the end of Se7en and we never actually see “what’s in the box”). Here are 3 films that come to mind – but hardly a complete list.
The Machinist (2004)
I may not always like bloody violence, but I am a big fan of films that exude a sense of dread and foreboding, and this one fits the bill. You may recall the stories of Christian Bale dropping dangerous amounts of weight for this movie – he dropped 65 pounds from 175 to 110 – and indeed our first jolting image is of his gaunt face and emaciated body. With his bones practically popping out of his skin, he’s almost unrecognizable. The film has a few graphic scenes that are tough to watch, including an amputation in a machine shop, but it is the “Route 666” ride that got to me the most. I won’t spoil it here, but it is quite the tour of human depravity. Throughout the whole film, there is an underlying sense of dread and a build-up to something that we know won’t be good. I rewatched this film a few days ago, and it held up well – carried by a solid vision by the director, unsettling but creative art direction, and an immersive acting performance by Bale, something I would argue is one of his best. The supporting cast is strong as well, particularly the guys that populate the machine shop, featuring an intense Reg E. Cathey, whom we wrote about last year in our character actors post, and a nuanced performance by Michael Ironsides, who typically are asked to overplay roles as a villain.
Bonus: The screenplay was written by a first-time writer straight out of film school, and is a rare example of a “spec script” getting made into a major film. It’s always been my dream to have a spec script of mine get made – although I’d have to actually write a script for that to happen.
DJ: I really wanted to check this out before this post but sometimes life gets in the way. It does sound hardcore.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Ben Affleck doesn’t get enough credit for this directorial debut, which was based on the novel by Denis Lehane. If you’ve read any of Lehane’s many novels, then you know he’s not afraid to jump into the deep end of human vice and corruption. I don’t know if this film would have disturbed me as much if I didn’t have children, but I watched this film home alone late one Sunday night, and I couldn’t get to sleep afterward. The overall arc of the missing child and the despicable low-life mother played brilliantly by Amy Ryan, is unsettling on its own. I know it’s a fictional story, but we know many children suffer negligent and abusive upbringings. Although we don’t actually see it on film, the idea of children suffering abuse is one of the most disturbing things to me – as I’m guessing it is for most of us. Beyond that storyline, about mid-way through the film, there is a sequence where a private detective, Casey Affleck in the lead role, breaks into a home where a suspected child rapist/killer is living. What he finds in the house of horrors, and the violent action it leads to was something I couldn’t get out of my mind for days. Affleck, the director, made that scene even more disturbing by not showing us everything – just quick glimpses and shadowy images – which leaves your own imagination to fill in the blanks. When filmmakers just outline the images and invite you to imagine the rest, that can make for an even more gruesome experience, because you feel like you’ve almost had a part in it.
Bonus: This film has some excellent supporting turns from some of my favorite actors – such as Titus Welliver (whom we wrote about in the great Amazon series Bosch), Ed Harris, and Morgan Freeman, but also has a variety of local Boston actors in various roles.
DJ: I don’t think this bothered me as much as you but it certainly is disturbing. Another very well made film by Ben Affleck. Curious what happened to Amy Ryan, she was great in this, seemed to disappeared.
The Accused (1988)
I saw on Wikipedia a statement saying The Accused was the first Hollywood film to portray rape graphically. This isn’t really true, as I remember back in the 80’s before this movie came out, rape scenes were unfortunately rather commonplace in both films and straight-to-VHS fare, often used as a justification for later vengeful acts by the lead male character (i.e. Death Wish). These scenes always disturbed me a lot, even with being at least 16-17 before I started watching R-rated films. The true “first” in The Accused was that a likable, well-known actress, Jodie Foster, was the rape victim and also the lead role. The story was based on the real-life gang rape of a woman in Bedford, Massachusetts in 1983, who helped put her attackers behind bars in a landmark trial. Growing up in the Boston area, this was a huge news story for years – always referred to as the “Big Dan’s” rape case as it occurred in a bar called Big Dan’s Tavern. The details were awful, but very public – that it was multiple men, it happened on a pool table, and bystanders not only didn’t stop it but cheered it on. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, The Accused included all of those elements, and the title had an intentional double meaning – referring to the defendants as well as the victim, whose lifestyle was attacked mercilessly during the trial. Portraying the rape victim as sexually promiscuous, and worse, was the common tactic of defense lawyers at the time – which the film helped to bring attention to, although I’m not sure how much has changed since then. I rarely hear this film mentioned anymore, and I understand it’s not easy subject matter to watch, but it is an important film that should not be forgotten.
DJ: This one is a rough one, not sure I could sit through this again but I do agree it’s an important movie that never gets talked about any more. In today’s culture it may be a good time for some people to revisit. It certainly fits disturbing.
Overall there has not been too many films that have disturbed me to a point that it stayed with me for days, I generally try to stay away from things like Human Centipede movies and Lars Von Trier films. As a kid, I saw a lot of violent movies – mostly over the top ridiculously violent 80’s films – so maybe I become somewhat desensitized. The earliest film I remember to have disturbed me was The Day After, the Reagan-era nuclear war film. Being still in the Cold War and the nuclear age, I really thought it was possible it could happen and that movie made it seem so real and horrifying. Here are three of the films I found most disturbing. Beware of spoilers.
Straw Dogs (1971)
So in the 90’s I started to visit films from the 70’s that I hadn’t seen but were well-known must-see films, now that I was an adult, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon and Straw Dogs, to name a bunch. Straw Dogs was a film by director Sam Peckinpah who had been known for extremely violent films, with the Wild Bunch being his most famous. He was never shy to be bloody. Straw Dogs was a film about a young married couple David and Amy, played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. They move to a remote British countryside to escape American violence. Amy is British and David is American. Amy’s former boyfriend and his friends are not approving but David hires them to do some repairs, which does not go so well. I’m not going to go over the rest of the specific plot points, but there are two brutal rapes of Amy, and then David’s revenge, which is bloody. Again at the point I saw this, I was used to cartoonish violence, but this one is brutal. Like The Accused above I struggle watching rape. I remember this bothering me for days. Ironically, I saw A Clockwork Orange around the same time which I love but also includes a rape scene. In that film, there is a point to it and I just feel it was handled differently than in Straw Dogs. Peckinpah amped it up and, not for nothing, David’s breaking point and bloody battles are pretty brutal too. I get his point he was trying to show humanity at its worst and what it takes to snap a usually mild-mannered person. It shocked viewers and critics at the time. I haven’t seen it since and have no inclination to do so.
Bonus: They remade this film in 2011 with Kate Bosworth and James Marsden, not sure why seems like a wasted effort.
MG: When I was writing about The Accused I thought about this film, and agree the rape scenes in this are some of the toughest to watch on screen. I studied Straw Dogs in college in a film class where one of the topics was “anomie” in cinema. (Anomie is basically when all the accepted standards and values of civilized life are stripped away). Both Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange explore this concept in disturbing ways. It is scary to think what can happen – and still does happen in parts of the world – when the laws/morals/ethics/values are gone and there is nothing to stop the worst of humanity.
I saw Damage, the 1992 Louis Malle film starring Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, and Miranda Richardson, as a young twenty-something and for some reason, it’s the first movie that comes into my head when someone mentions films that are disturbing. Irons is this important British politician, he is married and has a son and a daughter. Juliette Binoche plays his son’s girlfriend and later fiance. Irons starts having an affair with Binoche that turns into an obsession and things go downhill from there into a shocking ending. Not going to lie – I have not seen the film since and maybe the older me would view this film differently. In the last twenty years so many films have tried to shock and disturb that it can be numbing. Maybe it was youth, but the notion that a father would ruin his family’s life and high-level career to have an affair is just the total absence of right and wrong. The added caveat is it’s his future daughter-in-law. The horror when the son finds out is gut-punching. Miranda Richardson is excellent as the grieved wife who gets most of my empathy. The Juliette Binoche character also has a tragic upbringing which may explain why she is the way she is. You could almost make the case that she is broken and doesn’t know better, whereas Iron’s character chooses to act on his desires. For those who have been cheated imagine if the other guy is your fiance’s father, or if the other woman is your’s son’s fiance. It would be a bad situation that a family could never come back from. What also makes this film more impactful is the directing of Malle and the incredible acting of the three leads, two Oscar winners for other films and one nominated for this one (Richardson). Like most of these, another tough one to watch.
Bonus: The only Louis Malle film I have seen and he may be most famous for My Dinner with Andre or Au Revoir les Enfants.
MG: I also haven’t seen this one in years, but remember it being very unsettling and lingering in my mind for days after. It’s easy for people to point at large-scale things like past wars and The Holocaust and say “there is the worst of humanity”. Yet, sometimes the interpersonal choices people make on a daily basis can be equally devastating to individual lives. Damage definitely captured that in its own brutal way.
So here is one of the films that although it disturbed me I absolutely love – David Fincher’s best film so far – the 1995 thriller Se7en. Right from the opening credits, this film is creepy. A serial killer is killing people based on the seven deadly sins one at a time and two cops have to figure out how to catch him before he gets through all seven. Each victim has a gruesome death, for instance, the sin of sloth, the killer starves a man who also is a pedophile by chaining him to his bed for a year. Fincher’s tone is dark, and the settings are dreary. Morgan Freeman as the veteran cop is experienced and smart, Brad Pitt as the young cop is brash and impatient, both work off each other brilliantly as they try to figure this out. The killer, John Doe, played by Kevin Spacey is perfect for the role especially knowing what we know now, creepy is creepy. Fincher does a great job building the atmosphere and the tension leading to the last quarter of the film. The dialogue between Pitt and John Doe in the car is spot on and electric as Doe pushes Pitt’s buttons. The cinematography as the tension grows is beautiful and crisp, we see a great shot above of the fields and the power lines as the car drives rolling to the climax, they stop and walk to the middle of the field and the shot of the delivery truck coming up is brilliant and stressful. When Freeman sees what the delivery is and Pitt starts to figure it out we get the iconic, “What’s in the box?”. The end is jaw-dropping, to say the least, and left me disturbed. I went back after about a week going with friends that hadn’t seen it pretending I hadn’t seen it yet and expecting it not to bother me but it hit me again. I have seen it many times since and I still have the same feeling, it’s a great movie despite its content.
Bonus: Two good supporting characters actors show up, Reg E. Cathey makes an appearance as does the great R. Lee Ermey, as their captain.
MG: We might need to keep a Reg E. Cathey counter going next to his name (I think it’s 3 times he’s been mentioned by us in our blogs). This is a great film and basically introduced a whole new visual motif to thrillers and dramas, as a lot of films have tried to copy its dread-soaked look and feel. The scene between Gwyneth Paltrow and Morgan Freeman in the diner always hit me in the gut – the whole topic of not wanting to raise a child in this world and Freeman telling her if she decides not to have the baby to never tell her husband (Pitt). That conversation, when combined with her fate, is tough.