Movies provide an escape. They’re a safe way to experience dangerous things that we could never find in our everyday lives. Or at least, we would never experience them in our lives the same way they’re experienced on screen. And that brings us to today’s article. Nobody really wants to go insane. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t give us a rush on screen when it’s not real. Here are the nine coolest examples of movie characters losing their mind.
Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s 90s classic is a spectacular dip into madness. The narrator, played by Edward Norton, uses a tight friendship with a suspicious, bizarre, and cool character, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), to cower from the transition from immaturity to maturity. That alone should be plenty to pique everyone’s interest. But the depths to which Norton’s character will go are both comical and deep.
Black Swan (2010)
In her intense desire to prove that she’s capable of a legendary performance, Nina Sayers goes down the rabbit hole in every lurid way possible, ultimately resulting in… well, I don’t want to spoil the movie. Let’s just say that she was willing to give up an awful lot to prove her prowess. And it was incredibly satisfying to her.
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Sartre famously wrote that “Hell is other people.” Never is this more evident than in Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. It features Max von Sydow as an artist who is slowly pushed towards insanity by his own personal demons, and his ghoulish neighbors. Throw in a rocky, secluded Swedish island landscape and you’ve got a masterpiece amongst movie characters going insane.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The irony here is that R.P. McMurphy’s descent into madness wasn’t really much of a descent at all. He was simply the wrong guy, a counter-culture icon, at the wrong time. In fact, that’s big part of what gives the film so much teeth. McMurphy could be any 1960s miscreant (the film was set in the 1960s) whose mischievous outlier behavior was rewarded with electroshock to the point of oblivion. But he sure had a blast along the way.
The Cremator (1969)
This Czech New Wave classic is about a cremator who resides in Czechoslovakia during World War II. Karl, the cremator, believes that his job- cremation- frees the souls of the dead. He becomes obsessive about his job, particularly as the Nazis get closer and closer to annexing his town. He begins the film off-kilter, channeling the eeriness of other classic weirdos like Peter Lorre. He only wobbles wildly further out of control from there, with copious visual queues indicating just how far he has escaped into his deadly philosophies. It’s all a brilliant allegory for the Soviet occupation, and director Juraj Herz executes the growing madness in a delicious and darkly humorous way.
The Shining (1980)
All work and no play make a troubled writer lose his marbles. All work and no play make a troubled writer lose his marbles. All work and no play make a troubled writer lose his marbles. All work and no play make a troubled writer lose his marbles. All work and no play make a troubled writer lose his marbles. All work and no play make a troubled writer lose his marbles.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Any good descent into madness needs whimsy, and Carnival of Souls passes the test. The film’s title even implies whimsy, followed quickly by doom. And that’s actually a great way to describe the film, a wanna-be arthouse film made on B-movie money. It excels on the strength of some impressive and iconic imagery, some of which might keep you up late at night.
There are a lot of descents into madness that have been put to celluloid. I am 99.9999% confident that Videodrome is the only one that features a character pulling a gun out of his giant stomach-vagina. Your move, other insane movie characters.
Falling Down (1993)
Admit it. We’ve all been angry about minor transgressions, possibly even every day. We’d all love to completely Hulk out and lose our minds about it. Enter William Foster (Michael Douglas), a man who makes us cringe while serving as an avenging angel for a bunch of ultimately insignificant things, like traffic jams and incompetent fast food employees.
25 responses to “The 9 Coolest Examples of Movie Characters Losing Their Mind”
Great list! I think the best thing about showing madness in films is that you’re never quite sure whose story is reliable – if the person really is mad or if they’re correct, eg The Shining. I’d think Taxi Driver should get a mention too 😉
The only reason at all that I left Taxi Driver out is that I figured it was already on the other lists made on this same topic. But you’re absolutely right- it’s a classic “character goes crazy” movie.
Shock Corridor quickly comes to mind. Shutter Island, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Repulsion… a great movie subject.
I still desperately need to see Shock Corridor. I can’t believe I whiffed on Repulsion.
You’ve inspired me to finally watch Hour of the Wolf tonight.
That always makes me nervous.
How did it go? Did you enjoy it?
Ha ha, I wouldn’t have blamed you if I didn’t enjoy it. I may have been too tired to watch a Bergman film, but yes, I liked it. It had some amazing scenes.
Fun fact: I’m pretty sure the story about being locked in a closet with a little demon that would eat his feet or whatever is what happened to Bergman as a kid. His authoritarian father would lock him in a closet as punishment and his mind would run away with fantastical tales.
Heh, “Falling Down” is the first one I thought of.
As I understand it, Gregory Peck played his character in “The Omen” as a man going insane and *thinking* his son is the Antichrist. I believe it was mentioned either in a commentary or a “making of” feature.
I liked The Omen before reading your comment, but I like it a ton more now. That’s very cool.
Can’t argue with anything here! I’ve never seen Carnival of Souls but now I’m interested.
How about ‘Ash’? The robot from ‘Alien’, although technically he couldn’t loose his mind. Was pretty scary though!
Excellent picks. Is it odd that I love the hell out of many of these movies? Really dig the inclusion of Falling Down. D-FENS!
Ash’s role in that movie is epic.
Falling Down is a good shout. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind maybe? Someone mentioned Shutter Island in the comments, how about another with DiCaprio, Inception? Not him though, Marion Cotillard’s character, Mal. She loses her grip on reality in a visceral, painful way.
Oooh, great call on Mal. She completely lost it.
I think I’d also definitely put Repulsion near the top of my list.
Yeah, I feel like a schmuck for spacing out on Repulsion.
Hour of the Wolf is great. Haven’t watched it in a while.
Man, I love Falling Down. The breakfast/lunch scene at the burger place never gets old. Never.
I have a routine once or twice a month, on Sunday mornings, where I’ll run to my local McDonald’s and get a cup of coffee. I get it with sugar, no cream. Simple, right? Except they mess it up EVERY SINGLE TIME by giving me cream. It’s almost comical at this point. How do you mess up coffee and sugar? IT’S TWO THINGS IN A CUP.
Anyway, every time that happens, it makes me think of that scene in Falling Down.
I was thinking of Lawrence of Arabia and A Streetcar Named Desire,stellar acting performances
Still need to see Streetcar. It’s on my big fat checklist for this year. I think it’s even scheduled to DVR in a few weeks.
Streetcar is sooo good and do read the play too. It was sooo good
This calls for a Fight Club, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest, The Shining triple feature!
Just came across this thread a few years late. Interesting that Robin Williams also played someone mentally I’ll in a movie… Was it the fisher king or something. The interesting thing about movies like this are people usually have interesting delusions or hallucinations. But really becoming mentally I’ll and really having your mind break apart is a little less interesting on film. It’s a little too realistically disturbing and depressing I think. As someone who has lived it I think that may be true. One little known but pretty good depiction of someone with schizophrenia for instance was a movie from the 80’s I think. It was called the promise or broken promise…I’d have to google it to be precise. Anyway James Garner played the healthy brother trying to take care of the ill brother, James Woods….great actor. …who had the mental illness. Well didn’t mean to meander this far astray. The movies mentioned here are fascinating and do bear some resemblance to eccentric or disturbed minds who do fall off the deep end sometimes. I like Jacobs Ladder too with Tim Robbins. The movie was much different, but the thinking that goes along with the feeling and hallucinations you might experience when losing your mind was captured well in some of the scenes. If anybody reads this it may be obvious I’m a little off…..responding to such an old conversation. It’s cathartic I guess