My Favorite Unsettling Films

The Butcher Boy (1997, directed by Neil Jordan)

In 1960s Ireland, 12-year-old Francie Brady allows his imagination to take over his mind and body quite often. His mother suffers a nervous breakdown and commits suicide, and his father becomes emotionally distant, relying on alcohol to get through the day. Francie’s fantasies become full of aliens, monsters, comic book heroes, and most upsetting nuclear annihilation. Francie is driven to committing a horrific act in his community, which makes him an outcast and lands him at a reform school where he’s habitually molested by one of the priests and communes with a foul-mouth Virgin Mary statue. The line between his fantasies and the trauma of his abuses finally coalesce in a violent, bloody act.

What makes The Butcher Boy so unsettling is the mix of light & comic tone with gore and obscenity. Francie is a stereotypically plucky Irish lad, but the things he says and do are shocking, to say the least. Because director Neil Jordan does not follow the expected narrative to match his tone, the audience finds itself unable to predict what comes next. Jordan can pin down the disturbing chaos of childhood and how easily a vulnerable child can be abused by the world around them. The mind becomes both a means of escape and a crumbling grip on the universe.

Possum (2018, directed by Matthew Holness)

From my review: Matthew Holness has put a lot of time and thought into Possum, which started as a short story. When he began working on ideas for a film Holness knew he wanted to reference visually expressed psychological horror of silent cinema. The German Expressionists specialized in this sort of fare in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, just to name a few. He returned to his short story and saw it as a perfect piece to adapt to this type of film. As a result, Sean Harris, who plays Phillip, gives a nearly wordless performance, the story being told through the actor’s face and physical reactions, and the often surreal images on the screen.

Holness’ account of filming Possum are incredibly interesting, speaking about filming in Sitffkey marshes in Norfolk, which are reported to be haunted, he expressed feeling a sense of darkness on those shooting days. The final sequence of the film, which packs a hefty emotional punch, was the hardest to shoot in the director’s opinion. But as heavy and bleak as the film is, Holness insists that it is in those heightened moments that the truth of the characters comes out.

Take Shelter (2011, directed by Jeff Nichols)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) begins having apocalyptic dreams and waking hallucinations of a black rain falling on his Ohio farm, swarms of blackbirds, and people he knows harming him. He doesn’t share these mental breaks with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain). When Curtis finally decides to see a counselor, we learn of the history of mental illness in his family. His mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis’s age. 

Director Jeff Nichols plays things slow and subtle, letting us get into Curtis’s head and rationalizing that his dreams are his cognitive decline. But then he throws little twists our way, leading up to the picture’s finale, which will cause any viewer to start to question what was going on the whole time. Nichols isn’t willing to wrap everything up nicely but leaves us wondering, ambiguous, and confounding. The world may not be quite as simple as we once thought. 

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011, directed by Lynne Ramsay)

From my review: The home Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is a minimalist museum. It’s never a warm home. Even Kevin’s bedroom is bare-bones, the very minimum of what you expect to find in a child’s space. The house reflects the unsettled nature of Eva with her family. The film’s opening scene shows her reveling in a crowd surfing during a tomato festival in Spain, one of the few times we see her happy. Domesticity is not what Eva really wants, she worked as a travel agent, and she wants to span the globe again. But family, and in particular Kevin, keeps her trapped in the house.

Eva is covered in the juice of those tomatoes standing as an omen for the blood she believes is on her hands for Kevin’s acts. Her new home is vandalized by unseen neighbors, splattered with red paint. As she attempts to clean it off, her hands become stained, and she scrubs more aggressively to try and erase it all as quick as possible. But the memories keep wounds fresh, and during one visit with Kevin, she’s reminded of a horrible transgression she committed and that he has kept quiet for her all these years.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

From my review: The opening shot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer sets the stage for what you are about to see. After a brief musical overture, we go from black to the image of an actual human heart, splayed open in a patient’s chest during surgery, writhing, and pulsing. The camera slowly pulls up from this overhead shot but never far enough away to get this raw, visceral image off the screen. Director Lanthimos is about to put us through an intensely uncomfortable and horrific cinematic experience. This heart is one of only a few moments of gore, as Lanthimos chooses to evoke horror through profoundly strange and awkward conversations, punctuated just by sharp, dissonant strings.

Beneath the surface of what is presented on screen is a retelling of the Greek drama Iphigenia in Aulis. Without going into the details of this particular play, there is a lot of tragedy and an emphasis on the idea that the universe is a cold, cruel place where no decision is truly rewarded. All choices, even random ones, come with a terrible cost in some way, at some point. Lanthimos chooses to handle his characters with the sort of emotional distance seen in the best of Stanley Kubrick. Denis Villeneuve may employ the magnificent cinematography of Kubrick, Lanthimos is inspired by the paranoia and claustrophobia of a picture like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. He also erases any real sense of emotion from the proceedings, which intentionally works to ratchet up the tension and evoke an even more intense feeling from his audience. There is no interest in sentimentality, and the resolution of the film is genuinely horrific.

Enemy (2013, directed by Denis Villeneuve)

From my review: Enemy was the film that made me fall in love with Denis Villeneuve’s work. I had seen Prisoners previously and really liked it. That was enough to make me seek this out. The surreal visuals Villeneuve employs are what hooked me in. The long-limbed spider stalking over Toronto. The woman with a spider’s head walking upside down on the ceiling. That chilling final shot that reveals so much about Adam Bell’s internal thoughts. The director has definitely expanded on some elements of these visuals, particularly the sense of scope and size of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. He presents us with towering objects that cause our protagonists to seem minuscule and unimportant in their shadow.

That sense of insignificance is critical in Enemy. Early on, Bell gives a monologue as a lecture to his students about the nature of dictatorships. They are, at their core, an obsession with total control. The consequences of this control are never taken into account, merely the desire to have all under your heel. Bell learns that St. Claire has a wife who is six months pregnant, and soon after that begins having daydreams and hallucinations involving spiders. Adam Bell is trapped in a web as we see through constant shots of the cable car wires crisscrossing against the yellowed sky. These creatures most definitely represent the wife. Most female spiders will consume the male after impregnation, and beneath the surface of the story of doppelgangers is this theme. Much like Eraserhead, Villeneuve is exploring the psychological breakdown brought on by impending responsibility.

3 Women (1977, directed by Robert Altman)

Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) has just started working for a health spa in a small California desert town. She is partnered with older employee Millie (Shelly Duvall) to learn the ropes, and Pinky becomes enamored with her. Eventually, the two end up roommates at an apartment building owned by a retired Hollywood stunt double that drinks and womanizes. Their landlord’s wife, Willie, is a strange pregnant woman who spends her time making bizarre murals that decorate the complex. The tensions grow between Pinky & Millie until a fateful night that finds them seemingly reversing roles, becoming new people, and pulling Willie into their confounding relationship.

If 3 Women feels like a dream while watching it, then you’d be right. After having a dream by his wife’s side in the hospital while afraid she was going to die, writer-director Robert Altman came up with the idea. In developing this idea seed, Altman said he looked to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona for inspiration. After MASH’s financial success, Altman used his clout at 20th Century Fox to push the making of this utterly bizarre film. A closer look at 3 Women hints that it is less a film about a real narrative than an impressionistic exploration of one person’s fragmented psyche with each woman representing a single facet and evolving as events occur. The setting, the desert wastelands of Palm Springs, evokes a sense of the underworld when paired with the classical Greek murals Willie puts up around the apartment complex. You can’t ever entirely escape the feeling that something is wrong throughout the whole film.

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