Trey Edward Shults’ horror movie “It Comes At Night” is now playing in theaters nationwide, and with it comes a paranoid-fueled performance from Joel Edgerton that ranks as one of his very best. Characters unable to trust themselves and the people around them have often led to some of the most intense and unnerving movie performances in history, so we decided to take a trip down memory lane and pick some of our favorites. Click through the gallery for crazy good paranoid movie performances.
The penultimate moment in “Rosemary’s Baby” comes when Rosemary (Mia Farrow) discovers that her son, Adrian, is not only alive, but he is also inhuman. Farrow’s willowy Rosemary has been bullied throughout the film, having her suspicions laughed off or explained away by her husband, interloping neighbors and even her doctor. We’ve gone on an exhausting journey with Rosemary (was it morning sickness or was she being poisoned?), fumbling in the dark for answers that seemed far-fetched (“all of them witches”), but in that moment we know: Rosemary was not only right, but it’s so much worse than she — or we — could have ever imagined. Farrow’s realization is unshakeable.
Sean Gullette was a complete unknown when he appeared in the lead role of Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi,” which made his anxiety-filled performance as Maximillian “Max” Cohen hit like a punch to the gut. This wasn’t a movie star delivering a go-for-crazy performance, it was a seemingly everyday guy completely lost in his own paranoid delusions of numbers, conspiracies and Biblical prophesies. Part of Aronofsky’s trickery is in building Max’s ambiguously defined reality. A brilliant, unreliable narrator is hard to believe but even harder to flat out ignore, and Gullette takes you on a wild ride through his character’s unsolvable obsessions.
A24 is marketing Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes At Night” as a psychological horror movie, but it plays more effectively as a paranoia drama. The crux of the tension comes from the distrust between Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott. The former has been protecting his family against an unseen threat terrorizing the world, but his secure lifestyle is changed by the arrival of the latter. Is Abbott seeking refuge or is he more dangerous than we’re led on to believe? Can he be trusted? These questions drive Edgerton’s paranoia, forcing him to commit unspeakable acts and tearing down his resolve. It doesn’t help that Abbott, wearing rugged masculinity on his sleeve, forms a bond with Edgerton’s son. It’s not just the end of the world driving Edgerton’s fear, but also the jealousy of Abbott’s superior manhood. Shults may be the director, but it’s Edgerton’s unnerving decent into something monstrous that makes “It Comes At Night” an indie nightmare.
Although it was reviled upon release, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is highly regarded as a sci-fi classic, and it’s also a perfect example of how isolation and mistrust make for a bad combination. The film kicks off with a group of Norwegians trying to kill an escaped dog, and when their explanation for this isn’t translated on screen, we know nothing will be what it seems. From here, a virus begins to spread throughout the base camp of a group of American researchers, but we don’t know who is infected – and neither do they. Tensions begin to mount, no one trusts each other, and paranoia tears the camp apart.
Right from the very beginning of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” we’re duped, and it doesn’t stop there. When Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert, bugs a conversation between two lovers, he realizes that someone is planning to kill them. Caul’s attempts to uncover the truth lead him to mistrust everyone around him, including his friends and his mysterious employer, who is paying a hefty sum for the surveillance. Caul’s fears seem to be backed up by bloody evidence – but as with so many films on this list, nothing is what it seems, and his employer will stop at nothing to get what he’s paid for, even at the cost of Caul’s sanity.
Michael Shannon has one of the great paranoid faces in modern cinema. In Jeff Nichols’ unforgettable psycho-drama “Take Shelter,” Shannon plays a man who begins to believe his dreams of an impending apocalypse are a warning sign. He experiences hallucinations and becomes an isolated shell of himself as his friends and family worry he’s gone mad. The power of Shannon’s work is how devastating it is. He doesn’t so much tap into the horror and intensity of paranoia as he does the tragedy of it. All of the terror is there behind his eyes, but he plays the character as a hopeless, shattered figure. He’s a man whose one purpose in life — to protect and serve his family — has been stripped from him because of his own ambiguous delusions. “Take Shelter” is frightening because Shannon makes you feel what it’s like when you can no longer trust yourself. It’s not horror, but it’s something far more real and scarier.
David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is often hailed as a masterpiece, as detail-oriented as the obsessive quest cartoonist Robert Graysmith undertakes to uncover the identity of the San Francisco serial killer. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith embarks on a dangerous quest for truth, which leads him into confrontations with both his family and the suspects he uncovers. He’s inundated with late-night anonymous phone calls and the fear that his son might become a target of a killer who has threatened to shoot kids as they bounce off their school bus, which have him constantly glancing over his shoulder. When Graysmith is stuck in a creepy basement with an informant who might be more sinister than he seems, Fincher heightens the film’s tense paranoia to a suffocating pitch, and he doesn’t let go until the very end.