Vis-à-Visceral: The Most Uncomfortable Acts to Witness in Film

Odds are pretty good that it’s happened to all of us. You’re watching a film, you might have even heard that there’s something “trying” in it, or “challenging”, or whatever other ominous adjective someone used to describe what you’re going to watch. And then it happens- the “it”, the scene that makes you cover your eyes. It’s the scene that makes your stomach turn. And what is “it”? Probably one of these horribly uncomfortable acts:

“It”- incest- has been happening in pop culture ever since Oedipus did the worm with his mom in the 5th century B.C. I guess you could say it’s nothing new. It still pops up in films from time to time. Sometimes, but not always, you can see guideposts all the way and you spend the entire film hoping beyond hope that the filmmaker won’t actually follow through with it. Other times, it’s a horrible twist that you didn’t see coming.
Examples: Oldboy (2003); Chinatown (1974); Murmur of the Heart (1971); The Godfather: Part III (1990)

Like the act itself, vomiting in film happens without warning and leaves you feeling horrible yet relieved that you’re not witnessing it any longer. Fortunately, most films will cut away after holding onto the shot of the outstretched mouth, on the brink of volcanic eruption, for as long as possible before eventually leaving viewers to only hear (and not see) the awful event from off-camera. Unfortunately, some films hold onto the shot even longer and the viewer is forced to see movie characters’ mouths give forth to the great geyser.
Examples: Stand by Me (1986); The Exorcist (1973); The Right Stuff (1983); Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Nothing in movies gets to me quite like this one. And there are plenty of films that seem to make it a contest to see how long they can show the act, which amazingly makes the act even more vile and reprehensible than it already was. Having it implied is bad enough.
Examples: A Clockwork Orange (1971); Straw Dogs (1971); Irreversible (2002)

I don’t particularly fault filmmakers for putting this on display because it’s such a horrible-yet-important piece of history. It’s imperative that future generations realize that this type of thing can happen, and still does happen. As horrible as it is to watch, there is at least a purpose behind it. And in some cases, it’s even real footage.
Examples: Schindler’s List (1993); Hotel Rwanda (2004); Night and Fog (1955)

Child Molestation/Child Sexual Abuse
It’s like rape in film but even worse because it involves children, pretty much the most heinous act around. At least most of the time, filmmakers have the tact to not show the act. Just the mere implication of it incites a certain repulsion that I couldn’t even begin to describe.
Examples: Happiness (1998); The Woodsman (2004); Hard Candy (2005)

Human Waste/Human Waste Consumption
Having seen this category, you fall into one of two camps. There will be the camp that says “THAT ACTUALLY EXISTS IN MOVIES?!?!”, and I understand your trauma at the end of your naïveté. I was like you at one point in time, not even knowing that there’s a whole horrible world of films that show feces, or worse yet- the consumption of feces or urine. The other camp will say “You could not be more right, and I wish I had never seen _______”, internally naming the film (or films) that ruined your appetite for days.
Examples: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975); A Hole in My Heart (2004); Pink Flamingos (1972); Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Animal Murder (or Torture)

Part of what makes this so difficult to watch is because it seems unnecessary, especially when characters are doing it for fun. And in some cases in older films, it’s infinitely worse because the animal in the film was actually murdered in the process of making the film.
Examples: Dogtooth (2010); Cannibal Holocaust (1980); Gummo (1997)

I guess this category is a little bit more broad, but it definitely belongs. Watching another human being inflicting pain upon another in the immersive context of a theater (or even a television screen) is bound to make the blood boil or the stomach turn.
Examples: Reservoir Dogs (1992); Kick-Ass (2010); Funny Games (1997 or 2007)

I think most film-goers can relate to depression. There are probably a lot who can relate to being suicidal- certainly more than would be willing to admit it. Seeing the act on screen brings a lot of powerful and very uncomfortable emotions to the forefront. Even those who ideate suicide feel something very deep upon witnessing another person willingly ending their own life.
Examples: The Fire Within (1963); Taste of Cherry (1997); Le Jour se Leve (1939); Mouchette (1967)

I think it’s important to note here that I absolutely, positively do not intend to discourage anyone from watching the examples I’ve listed, or any other movie that features one of these acts. Uncomfortable scenes or not, filmmakers are free to ply their craft and employ whatever creative license that they wish within the realm of legalities. To further prove my point, some of my very favorite films along with some of the most critically-acclaimed ever made are listed in the examples.


Filed under Movies

33 responses to “Vis-à-Visceral: The Most Uncomfortable Acts to Witness in Film

  1. @da_Rhettster

    As excrement goes, the toilet scene in “Trainspotting” is pretty brutal. For torture, any of the Saw/Hostel/various other “torture porn” films that I just can’t stand.

    I HATED Funny Games. I just hated the huge middle finger it gave to the audience.

  2. Oddly I don’t have one specific act that I can’t handle seeing. Almost everything you wrote about makes me uncomfortable, but none of it upsets me to endure. Perhaps, for me sometimes it comes down to intensity or context.

    One thing I did have to turn my head from for the longest time was the curb-stomp scene in AMERICAN HISTORY X.

    • The one scene that literally made me gag was the ear soup scene in ‘Dead Alive’. But I was also laughing really hard at it, so I didn’t mind.

      FWIW, I watched all of the stuff mentioned in all of the various examples (and many others). I guess I’m saying that I’m with you- it’s more about a discomfort level.

    • Dude

      Second the curb stomp scene. Just makes me go “iieeehh” Funny enough, I wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable seeing him get raped in jail. Which should have been equally discomforting.

    • aleksa

      I still close my eyes for that curb stomp scene. I remember seeing it in the theater.

  3. Dude

    Another thing I am against is watching horror/suspense/torture/thriller movies with children around (within earshot) no matter how small. My point is that they are forming their brains and psyche and constant suspense music and screaming is bad.

  4. aleksa

    My daughter (almost 14) is hugely into horror, and has been since she was fairly young. The only film I refuse to let her watch is “Audition.” The last 20 minutes of that film really pushed the envelope, even for an old-school horror fan like me.

    As for me, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch “Irreversible” because of that rape scene. I saw a clip of that scene and made it maybe 30 seconds into it.

  5. Kelly

    Pink Flamingos, I think, is the epitome of feces-eating on film, since it was authentic, fresh dog crap.

    I’m surprised to not find Henry: Portait of a Serial Killer mentioned. That film contains quite a number of the elements mentioned here. It is a good movie, but disturbing.

  6. The rape in Boys Don’t Cry with that total hoosier with the mullet and fever blisters haunts me a little. Movies don’t generally leave me feeling messed up unless a characters life sucks, we live in the suck, and then they die. I love/hate it! Why do movie makers do it? Because it works! Your angry, your sad, you see all the beautiful irony, and you cry! (Or at least I do cause I’m a total pussy!)
    American Beauty, The Single Man, I could go on and on!

  7. Cannibal Holocaust and Salo are two of only five movies I’m 100% certain I’ll never watch again. Did you know that the animal slaughter at the end of Apocalypse Now (I think it was a buffalo) was real?

  8. Yup, hard to top rape. Last House on the Left, man. F that S.

  9. Speaking of uncomfortable acts, have you seen The Brave One with Jodie Foster? Watching the film is one giant uncomfortable act. I mean, Wow!

    Let me elaborate….

  10. Great title to this one by the way. Not that I really want to be the dude who brings this up, but there is a really nasty human waste scene (as opposed to a beautiful, poignant human waste scene) in Jodorowsky’s “Holy Mountain”, which would be a perfect film if not for the scene.

    Funny Games, by the way, is disgusting. All copies of it should be put out in a boat in sunk into the Marianas Trench. Both versions!

  11. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    What did I tell you? Pink Flamingos is one messed up movie.

    • I haven’t made myself watch it… yet. That scene is so notorious. I accidentally saw a screen capture of the dog feces scene when looking for something else and my stomach turned.

  12. Melissa

    One of my pet peeves is when a movie includes some sort of animal torture or death that is meant to be funny. That causes two-fold discomfort: the discomfort of seeing it and that of hearing laughter from other theater-goers.

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