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