It’s not uncommon for a film focused on an unstable person to take a subjective standpoint, putting the audience in the character’s shoes. This mode of presenting the various characters’ mounting insanity can make for a troubling and unpredictable viewing experience. Sometimes this effect is achieved by way of narration, which immediately encourages us to trust what’s being told to us. Other times, though, the film carries on with little explanation for what is happening and what is real. The following list highlights a few of the more memorable characters that spiral into complete madness, and take you down with them.
5) Sara Goldfarb in Requiem For a Dream (2000), dir. by Darren Aronofsky
Though each character in Requiem falls apart in their own way due to their heavy drug addiction, Sara (played by Ellen Burstyn) completely loses her sense of self and reality. After being convinced that taking diet pills would work, she quickly becomes addicted to what is really speed, and without much of a warning her extreme paranoia sets in, along with bizarre hallucinations where her apartment becomes a T.V. set, and her refrigerator is trying to eat her. Though we certainly know this isn’t actually happening to Sara, there is still an unavoidable sense of terror during Sara’s more subjective scenes. You are given no choice but to experience her insane sense of reality with her.
4) TIE: David Aames in Vanilla Sky (2001), dir. by Cameron Crowe, and Trevor Reznik in The Machinist (2004), dir. by Brad Anderson
These two films are not similar for a multitude of reasons, but what does bring them together is their similar approach to reality and dreams. David (Tom Cruise) in Vanilla has disturbingly realistic dreams that he becomes unable to distinguish from reality. Trevor (Christian Bale), however, hasn’t slept in a year—but because of this, he becomes unsure of what is really happening around him, and his life becomes not unlike a horrific nightmare. In both films, the characters around David and Trevor respectively seem to constantly be shifting in both their appearance and their nature. Both characters’ existence becomes a unstable, unpredictable mess, and we as viewers have to scramble to piece it all together. They both become hostile and utterly exhausted with trying to figure out the repressed truths that seem to come to them in distant flashes. Regardless of what is really happening, you, along with David and Trevor, are never given a moment’s rest until the absolute breaking point.
3) Miss Giddens in The Innocents (1961), dir. by Jack Clayton
Easily one of the first movies that truly scared me as a child, The Innocents never relies on cheap tricks. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is hired as a governess of two orphaned children by their uncle in Victorian England. After a chain of bizarre events, Miss Giddens begins to believe that the former governess and valet are possessing the children. Just as Miss Giddens sees and hears strange, unsettling things, we too see and hear them. The film may at first come off as a straightforward haunted house and possession story, but it becomes clear that by the end of the film, reality and unreality are indistinguishable and ambiguous.
2) Carol in Repulsion (1965), dir. by Roman Polanski
The first installment of Polanksi’s “Apartment Trilogy,” Repulsion is a highly subjective representation of a young, beautiful young woman’s life. The film is entirely through the eyes of Carol (Catherine Deneuve), as she spirals out of control with constant terror and hallucinations. She is devastatingly beautiful (both as her character and in real life), and the men in the film are unable to resist her. That is, through her eyes they are total monsters. What begins as bothersome remarks in the street, transforms into groping hands coming out of her own apartment’s walls after she locks herself away. Her visions become more and more vivid, and represent her extreme opposition to any man violating her, by way of looks, encroaching on her space, or physically touching her.
1) Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), dir. by Stanley Kubrick
Jack (played by Jack Nicholson) starts out as a normal guy. He lands a job as a caretaker for The Overlook Hotel during the winter months, and moves in with his family. After being isolated from the outside world for so long, Jack develops cabin fever, and arguably starts to become possessed by the hotel itself. Jack isn’t the only one seeing and hearing these things, however. His wife and son do as well (more so his son, who has premonitions, sees ghosts, and can hear certain people’s thoughts). It’s never clear if any of the horrific scenes throughout are really happening, if they are a figment of Jack’s (or his son’s) deluded mind, or if the hotel itself is playing visual tricks on the family. Everything is left fairly ambiguous, and as the movie progresses, Jack rapidly loses his mind, self, body, and family to the supposed “evil” hotel.
Honorable Mentions: The Tenant (1976), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Black Swan (2010), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), American Psycho (2000), Fight Club (1999), Shutter Island (2010).
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.