The Ten Best Movies About Insanity

Insanity is a common subject in film, and can be difficult to address clearly. Insane persons have a very unique and twisted worldview, and a director would need to know a lot about the subject to portray that view accurately. The following list is the ten films which, in my opinion, deal with the subject best. Note that there are dozens of others that could’ve made the list, and if you’d like to name some please leave a comment below.

10: The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining addresses insanity as a product of alcohol, and it is the only film on this list to do so. The book by Stephen King addresses it in a much clearer, more startling manner, but there is no denying Kubrick’s glorious cinematography and creepy vibes are just as effective. Jack Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career as the mentally unhinged Jack Torrance, whose alcohol addiction and short temper invite the demonic forces of the Overlook Hotel into his head, and convince him to kill his family. Still as haunting as ever over thirty years after its initial release, The Shining remains a film which is a study more on things that lead to insanity, than insanity itself.

9: Rejected (2000)

Rejected, in case you have not seen it or even heard of it, is a 9-minute short film directed by Don Hertzfeldt detailing an animator’s descent into insanity through his short cartoons, which increasingly grow more disturbing and disgusting. I completely love the change of pace in this movie. The first few minutes are absolutely hilarious and completely random, but as the film goes on we begin to realize how sick and saddening it really is. The film’s visceral conclusion is poetically brilliant, an amazing representation of mental instability finally kicking into overdrive. The film isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a watch:

8: Inland Empire (2006)

Even if you’ve seen this, which surprisingly few people I know have, you wouldn’t expect to see it on the list. Sure, it’s easy to label any of David Lynch’s movies “insane” but you’d expect to see Mulholland Dr. on a list of insane movies, not Inland Empire, right? Well after hours and days of studying the film, I’ve determined that it has a much more effective and memorable stance on insanity than its more well-known predecessor. It’s about a woman, an actress (Laura Dern) who sinks into the role of a boozed ex-prostitute reflecting on her demented past with a spiteful attitude yet with no particular impulse to change. I’ve always thought it’s one of the best movies ever made (except for the whole DV-shooting thing, which I still don’t get), and I’m probably one of very few people who think that, but the reason it’s so difficult to understand is because insanity is difficult to understand. Lynch goes straight for the gut, heaving disturbing images at us and forcing us to confront them. I’m praying for the day when he makes another film, but if he doesn’t, this would be a fitting conclusion.

7: Citizen Kane (1941)

While labeling any one film ‘the greatest movie of all time’ is an incredible overstatement (though Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog comes closest), one can’t deny that Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is pretty damn close. He plays the eponymous Kane, the ruthless patriarch of a newspaper empire (a character based on William Randolph Hearst, but who seems eerily similar to the Rupert Murdoch of today) whose greed and power are ultimately his downfall. In the end, as we all know, he dies, and on his deathbed all the regrets of his life flash before his eyes in an instant, and all he wishes for is the simplicity of his childhood (*wipes tear*). I don’t believe Kane was really insane, but for a few, fleeting, manic moments we see insanity in his eyes, in his attitude, and for Welles to display that so calmly, so cooly, is the artwork of a cinematic God itself.

6: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

Werner Herzog’s astonishing breakthrough is one of many tales of maniacality fuelled by greed. Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) at first accepts his place as a secondary character before suddenly, shockingly and mercilessly usurping the position of leader. He leads his men on a lethal journey into the jungle in search of the mythological city of El Dorado, a place as incredibly difficult to find as any logic or reason in the film’s protagonist: very difficult. He’ll let his men die so long as he gets to his destination, and as they are ruthlessly picked off by natives and eaten by monkeys, he stands triumphantly, as if their rotting corpses are the fruits of his discoveries, the gold of El Dorado, and as if the long trek into the jungle will last forever, until ultimately his own life is taken by his second-hand desires and unstable tendencies.

5: American Psycho (2000)

Can you remember the expression on your face when Patrick Bateman said, “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” Or how about: “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!” Or most memorably: “It’s even got a watermark!” They’re all lines representing the typicality and tiredness of his insanity, how it is so fully developed and fleshed out that it is not his soul that has been taken over, but his entire physical form. There is not one iota of sanity from Bateman in the entire film; strange, since usually all films about insanity have at least one moment when the insane protagonist looks momentarily normal. This is the beauty of Mary Harron’s representation of the character. He is insane to the point where acting sane would be insane, to him. This is very difficult to represent on screen, but Harron does it with ease, style, and a helpful handful of pop culture references. Bale embodies Bateman, to the point where it is difficult not to be reminded of Bateman every time we see him. Bateman is one of those characters that was probably always insane, but what makes it especially shocking is how physically similar he is to the film’s other characters, which suggests subtly that his insanity is normal, that he is not alone, and that it is typical of the rough, threatening shark-in-a-suit attitude which has become so stereotypical.

4: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Randal Patrick McMurphy is not insane. He is as normal as apple pie or cinnamon buns, and there is no reason for us to think any different? So why is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on this list? Because this is a list of films about insanity; dealing with it as a subject, not necessarily as characterisation. McMurphy is isolated in a world of supposedly crazy (“Creeps! Lunatics! Mental Defectives!”) people, but as the film passes by, we realize how we have completely overestimated the meaning of the word insane. Insanity does not necessarily mean dropping a chainsaw from fifty feet and hitting a prostitute splat on the head (see #5), it can mean something as simple as basic paranoia or just thinking in a different manner to what we would consider ‘normal.’ Insane is a stupid word. Literally, it would mean ‘the opposite of sane,’ but what is sane? Normal? What is normal? How can you factually define these words without using opinion? There is no way. Definition is supposedly fact, but opinion is a part of almost everything we say and mean, rendering the words ‘insane’ or ‘sane’ moot. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest deals with insanity as normality, determined by a group of probing doctors and physicians, taking notes and giving pills that have no effect other than to render the person in an almost catatonic state of ignorance. The film screams out against the system of imprisonment and the definition of insanity, and this is how it is a film which deals with the subject.

3: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Sure, milkshake metaphors and bowling-pin beatings warrant us to issue an insanity warning, but the film is so much deeper than that. Daniel Plainview, like Charles Foster Kane and Don Lope de Aguirre, is driven by greed. At first he is represented as a normal man, but his descent into insanity is shocking and unnerving. While not the best film to deal with the subject, it is definitely one of the most effective. Paul Thomas Anderson confidently directs his masterpiece, and Robert Elswit’s Oscar-winning cinematography perfectly captures the madness in his mind. The film’s harrowing final half hour is a poetically stunning final message about greed and insanity. I think it is brilliant that Anderson can so amazingly capture that insanity in 30 minutes, let alone two and a half hours. The final confrontation between religious faith and atheistic disbelief is like God and Satan bickering, except this time Satan wins. Seeing Plainview in a ragged, drunken state in the film’s finale, screaming lines like “DRAAIIIINNNNAAGGEEE!” and “I told you I would eat you!” is the embodiment of a loss of soul, dignity and care. At this point, it’s not even about his greed for oil anymore. All he wants now is to hate, to kill. Compassion takes effort, and he is lazy. Looking into Plainview’s maniacal eyes we realize that anything that is not hate and selfishness will never exist in there, and it is a sombre and haunting moment indeed. Gordon Gekko once said “Greed is good.” He was NOT referring to Daniel Plainview.

2: Taxi Driver (1976)

Some would argue that Travis Bickle’s attitude was not insanity, but just tiredness. Then again, would you go and do what he did? No, you wouldn’t. Most would consider it sane not to go to such drastic measures, am I correct? Then that means what Bickle did was, by public definition, insane. But this is no time for argument. The image of Bickle with his fingers pointed at his head (“Boom! Boom! Boom!”) is him at the height of his insanity, breaking through all walls to rid his city of scum. The path to insanity is paved by Scorsese slowly, as an eventual downward spiral. This seems to be the most common way to track insanity (see #10, #9, #7, #6 and #3 on this list), and it works. Bickle’s character is a man we can all relate to; many of us can easily see ourselves doing what he does, but most of us just don’t have the insanity and conviction in our heads to actually proceed with the acts. Sure, if you saw a sadistic madman like Sport (Harvey Keitel) pimping and abusing the underage Iris (Jodie Foster), you’d want to do something, you’d want to stop it, right? Well this is where Bickle differs from everyone else; he actually does something, and it quite something indeed. He doesn’t report him to the police, he just goes right ahead and kills him because that is his mindset, the wasy he thinks, and what he considers the rational thing to do. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

1: The Hour of the Wolf (1968)

I don’t think there’s a single person who would ever read this article who will agree with me on #1. I am bracing myself for the “Hey, how can you put that ahead of Citizen Kane or Taxi Driver?” Well, as we all know, lists like these are opinionated so this is simply my opinion. Ingmar Bergman’s delve into the realm of horror film proved deeply influential (watch it back to back with Scorsese’s Shutter Island and you’ll see what I mean) and starkly terrifying. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann (Bergman’s two most talented collaborators, if I may say so) are a married couple living on an island whose lives are changed by the island’s strange inhabitants. They draw in von Sydow, humiliate him, trick him, and convince him he is losing his sanity. As the film goes on, this is exactly what happens. Any film can track an eventual loss of sanity, but Bergman punctuates it with a mixture of both subtle scenes of sanity loss and outright obvious moments of von Sydow losing it. The film is sporadic and shocking, unpredictable and unforgettable, and portrays the subject of insanity in a manner that is impossible to replicate, making the film not only powerful but unique and special, impossible to remake, fun to homage and incredible to watch.

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Well, that’s my list. Anything you’d like to add? Leave a comment below.

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About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on July 26, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 41 Comments.

  1. I sometimes surprise myself. Apart from your number 1 I have seen them all!!!

    American Psycho still gives me shivers now….scary stuff!! I agree about The Shining as well, although it was a great film, like so many Stephen King adaptations it just misses the mark. I am looking at you Tommy Knockers!!

    Great top ten dudicus!

    • You’ve seen Inland Empire? And Aguirre? You surprise me, too. What did you think of them, out of curiosity.

      • Why is it surprising? tut tut.

        Inland Empire i really didn’t like. But I am not much of a Lynch fan and didn’t watch it all.

        Aguirre I saw when I was at college. I did a year of film studies before I discovered ‘the herb’ and went off the rails for a few years. Anyway I enjoyed it at the time, always reminded me of Apocolypse Now, or Apoc Now reminds me of this. Either way. Anyway I am over it now and I am back to things that make me squishy inside. :-)

        Where are my bunnys?

        • Haha, I understand. Inland Empire might just be the most inaccessible movie ever made (I have written a post to help people understand it) but it’s worth thinking about. Although I understand that it’s just not your cup of tea.

          As for Aguirre, again… Just not your cuppa. Some people were made for mainstream, and I don’t think any less of them (in fact, at times I envy them).

    • I’m the opposite, Custie, I’ve only seen one from this list as I don’t do well with this subject matter. I enjoy reading your insights, Tyler, as Jack said a good list is when you took the time to list the reason why you pick ‘em.

  2. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Excellent, well thought out and explained list!

    I always thought ‘The Shining’ was one of Nicholson’s best scenery chewing films. The best being ‘The Last Detail’. It takes a lot of subtlety and finesse to let the audience know you’re nuts, but once it’s been established. All bets are off and the sky’s the limit!

    Kinski defined insanity in ‘Aguirre…’ . A film where Kinski’s eyes frighteningly glow with what High School Football Coaches call ‘Desire’ well before the second half of the flick.

    Christian Bale found a comfortable niche in ‘American Psycho’. One he’s expanded by hanging onto small parts of Patrick Bateman’s distraught psyche and implanting them in Bruce Wayne and The Dark Knight.

    Caught Nicholson’s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ in a nearly deserted theater and was absolutely floored by Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, Kudos to Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Louise Fletcher.

    De Niro’s Travis Bickle starts out as a sad, ignored survivor. Who becomes fed up and starts a slow downward spiral until he gets hold of a cache as weapons and designs a mission, Which he uses as justification for running bloodily off the rails. One of the most subtle and under played portrayals of insanity on film.

    • Hi Jack. Thanks for your kind words and opinions on the films. They’re all great movies and were very difficult to rank. I mean, how can you rank the varying degrees of insanity? Is it possible? Well, I tried.

  3. I’ve seen 4 movies from this list(The Shining, There Will be BLood,American Psycho, and Citien kane0. I have been meaning to check out Taxi Driver for a while, and i may check out some of the other films on your list. I am kind of surprised Black Swan wasn’t mentioned tho

    Btw,if you like movies about this subject then the movie i recommended in my 15 question meme may be to your liking ;)

    • They’re all brilliant films everyone should see.

      I considered Black Swan, but it just missed the list’s final cut, mainly because it owes a lot to some of the movies on the list (most notably #8, #3, and #1).

      Off to check out that meme.

  4. Any post to give you a reason to sing the praises of Paul Thomas Anderson, huh? LOL. (Plus, I’m on board with that.) Excellent choices, all. (Nos. 9 and 1 I’m not familiar with, but you’ve definitely aroused my curiosity.) Aguirre … Oh, my God, what a great, great film. (Can’t they just give Werner Herzog a lifetime achievement Oscar?) Mary Harron is a genius who needs to be given whatever money she needs to make whatever film she wants. May I make a few suggestions?

    1. Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983). This is probably Woody’s most unjustly overlooked film, but absolutely belongs in the top three of his entire oeuvre. It is clever; superbly written, acted, and directed; a technical marvel; and absolutely hilarious and touching. Ten years before CGI came on the scene, Allen and his cinematographer (the great Gordon Willis) made some of the most brilliant, resourceful, and integral use of special effects in the history of film. It is a textbook example of how special effects can be used as one of the vital, driving forces of a film, rather than an flashy, ultimately hollow end. (I’m looking at you, James Cameron and George Lucas.)

    2. Amadeus (Milos Forman- -again!- -1984). This film is less abount Salieri’s insanity (or, more precisely, his end-of-life delusions, in which he recalls much of the film’s events in flashback), but more about Mozart’s brilliance. Nevertheless … one of the most virtuosic and memorable biopics ever made. This movie turned on an entire generation of kids (hell, adults, too) to classical music.

    3. The Ruling Class (Peter Medac, 1972). Few scenes in movies have stuck with me as vividly as Peter O’Toole’s character, believing he is Jesus, dancing alone through the room to the strains of the ragtime standard “The Varsity Drag.”

    4. I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron- -again!- -1996). More Mary Harron, more Lili Taylor, more Jared Harris, please. I can’t think of a delusional nutjob ever portrayed more compellingly, or with greater sympathy and depth than man-hating Valerie Solanis as portrayed by Lili Taylor. Jared Harris (now, happily, a Mad Men fixture) is, hands down, the best screen Warhol yet, easily besting the considerable likes of Crispin Glover and David Bowie.

    5. White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949). I guess that insanity is sort of oblique and peripheral to this film, though Cody Jarrett’s (James Cagney) unpredictable, splitting headaches, volatile, mad-dog fury, and wonderfully creepy dependence on his mother merit more than a few sessions on the couch. Cody is about as f*cked up in the head as it gets. Like S. V.’s tireless promotion of P. T. Anderson, I’ll make any excuse to draw attention this film, which represents the pinnacle of Cagney’s work as an actor, of the gangster/crime genre, and of mid-century cinema in general. Top of the world, Ma!

    • I just watched I Shot Andy Warhol for the second time yesterday. Lili Taylor is great plugging her SCUM manifesto.

      I just recomended our auther to check out Amadeus too.

      It’s been a while since I saw it but Chattahoochee comes to mind.

    • I’m trying not to sing P.T.A’s praises too much, but how can I not? He’s such a fucking genius.

      I agree with your comment about Herzog… give him a bloody Oscar before it’s too late!

      Thanks for all your recommendations; I can sadly say I have not seen any of them (although Amadeus is VERY easy to get ahold of) but it’s five more films I’m happy to add to my watchlist.

      Thanks for stopping by, japecake. It’s nice to know you’re not all biting sarcastic satire and nothing else.

  5. Seeing this list all laid out like this- and the fact that two of my very favorite films are included in the list, and that I’ve loved all 8 that I’ve seen- sort of makes me realize that the “Descent into Insanity” genre is my achille’s heel.

    • Hey, you’re not alone! I freaking love the Descent Into Insanity genre. It’s more interesting because of the character development than just boring old normal movies.

  6. Really awesome list Tyler! Having seen many of those, I’m only even more interested in seeing all the other ones I haven’t checked out yet (well maybe except for Inland Empire which I tried to watch for about 20 minutes lol). The Hour of the Wolf is probably next since it’s #1 :)

    • Hour of the Wolf is worth watching at night; it fucking freaked me out watching it at 11pm and I’ll never forget its effect on me. Crazy film, but definitely worth watching.

  7. Fantastic list (as usual). Aguierre is one of the best films ever made, and it’s final shot, with Klaus Kinski alone on the boat still searching (and totally doomed) always gets me.

    Another good one is a movie called “Drive, He Said” from the early-’70s. It’s not wall to wall about insanity, but it has one character who goes right off the rails. I only mention this because Jack Nicholson actually directed the pic, but didn’t star in it. Might be right up your alley if you can hunt it down.

  8. Superb top 10 list. Funny that Jack Nicholson crops up a couple of times – he’s obviously good at the role. It is also interesting that you replace the word insanity with obsession and how it would link with most of these characters. I will have to check out The Hour of The Wolf.

    • It was a hard list to write. I could’ve added in more Nicholson but I didnt want to stretch it. Picking a #1 was incredibly hard, and people are liable to disagree, but Hour of the Wolf fits the bill perfectly for me. Enjoy it!

  9. These are all well and good, I understand the need to have “classics” here but seriously… fight club. A lot of these characters exhibit signs of mental illness to a degree but as far as it being so vital to the outcome of the movie and having it work to convey its message i see none better…. Gotta at least be in the top ten somewhere.

    • I did consider FIGHT CLUB… but ultimately it didn’t make the cut. I agree, it deals with mental illness in an interesting way, but I just couldn’t rank it above any of these. Sorry.

  10. i’m trying to find a movie about insanity, all I can remember about it is a scene that starts with a ball bouncing outside someones window that turns into a head it’s quite an old one, about 30 – 35 years. Anyone have any idea’s.

  11. I can’t see how American Psycho is only #5 and Taxi Driver #2. I don’t know about the other movies, since I just watched these two.

    Travis is lonely, but not insane, while Bateman is the very personification of insanity. Travis KNOWS that he is lonely, while a truly insane person would just suspect it…

    And no Fight Club, really? I mean an crazy insomniac, who has an imaginary friend and tries to open Terror cells all over the country, and blow up banks?

    Well, it’s of course open for interpretation, but that’s just my opinion. :)

    • Interesting points you raise. Insanity is hard to define, and these movies are nearly impossible to rank.

      I wasn’t suggesting that Travis Bickle is more insane that Patrick Bateman, only that Taxi Driver deals with insanity (even if it is comparitively mild to American Psycho) much better than American Psycho. I love both films but I think Taxi Driver is just a little bit better and more accurate.

      Hahaha Fight Club would be in the top twenty, but just not the top ten. I agree it is a great film about insanity.

      Thanks for your comment.

  12. The Machinist

  13. thefilmfreak

    Considering the number of films offering up a good dose of insanity, I think the inclusion of Citizen Kane is a bit of a stretch. Especially considering the omission of a classic film I was certain would be here but isn’t, Psycho. Other considerations for anyone who loves the crazy: Through a Glass Darkly, Sunset Blvd, Night of the Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Kings and Queen, Dogtooth, Videodrome, Repulsion, Silence of the Lambs

    • Haha well I did write this list a long while ago, and it could very well be revised with many changes. One film I’d definitely include if I revised the list would be Repulsion. And Psycho, Through a Glass Darkly, and Apocalypse Now. To be fair, I had only seen Citizen Kane once when I wrote this list and since then I’ve seen it more and grown to understand it better.

  14. Aww, where’s Jacob’s Ladder? I’m researching insanity portrayed in film and you’ve given me quite a lot to watch for ideas, so thank you. Great list.

  15. What about “the number 23?”

  16. filthy-urchin.

    Great list but I think ‘Secret Window’ deserves a mention.

  17. Great number one. Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf would have been my number one choice too. Strong list. Others I’d consider adding: Repulsion, The Conversation.

  1. Pingback: Achilles’ Heels: The Genres and Storylines I Can’t Resist |

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