Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s “The Tribe,” last year’s Cannes’ Critics Week sensation that’s told entirely in sign language with no subtitles, is a must-see film. But it’s by no means an easy watch. With the film opening today in select theaters, here are 15 other brutal filmgoing experiences that are worth the effort.
“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007)
To say that “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is not for the faint of heart is a massive understatement. Cristian Mungiu’s gut-wrenching film is a slice of life under the brutal 1980’s Romanian Communist regime, during which contraception was illegal and abortion was punishable by death. When Gabita, a university student, finds out that she is pregnant, she enlists the help of her roommate to seek an abortion on the black market. The film follows the young women in what feels like real-time for 24 hours as they enter a merciless labyrinth of duplicity and horror rendered with unflinching detail. Their supposed abortionist is in fact a sadist who forces the women to hand over large sums of money; when they can’t pay in full, he asks them to have sex with him. The majority of the film takes place in the abysmal motel room in which Gabita’s abortion is performed. The procedure itself is horrific, but what’s worse is the debasement the women subject themselves to in the name of desperate circumstance. Mungiu’s social-realist drama is as close to a second-hand hellish experience as one can get. It’s a riveting masterwork of excruciating long-takes, stark imagery and brilliant, disturbing performances that deserved every inch of the Palme d’Or it won at Cannes in 2007.
“12 Years a Slave” (2013)
Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning historical epic viscerally (and yes, brutally) confronts slavery in America. Chronicling the plight of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from free man to captured slave, “12 Years a Slave” realizes the dark underbelly of our history through an uncompromising focus on the physical and emotional abuse long inflicted upon African Americans. When McQueen holds the camera on a bare Solomon in shackles, whipped senselessly by his captors as they compel him to admit to being a slave, the effect is an aural and visual assault. And it’s downright devastating when, near the film’s conclusion, the vicious Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) forces Solomon to unendingly whip Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), a fellow slave and the object of Epps’ perverse affection. In neither instance does McQueen cut, or move the camera: In keeping us close and not allowing us to avert our eyes, he exposes our complicity in what we see. Such a vision is reflective of the entirety of “12 Years a Slave,” a film of necessary, penetrating horror.
Filmographies don’t get more unbearable than that of Lars von Trier, Hollywood’s enfant terrible whose affinity for corrosive morals and graphic sexuality has yielded one brutal feature after the next. The Cannes-winning “Antichrist,” which kicks off the director’s aptly-titled “Depression Trilogy,” stars William Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as partners who retreat to a cabin in the woods after the death of their child. As their grief takes possession, the father begins encountering bizarre visions while the mother starts succumbing to sadomasochistic obsessions. Not for the faint of heart, “Antichrist” swaps the low-budget rawness of von Trier’s Dogma 95 films for a gorgeous, visually-striking aesthetic that disturbingly puts the characters’ torment and mental unraveling on a operatic pedestal. It’s this fusion between ornate style and dark subject matter that makes the film a nightmare both unwatchable and addictive.
“Funny Games” (1997/2007)
With “Funny Games,” Michael Haneke takes the horror trope of the vacation-gone-horribly-wrong and violently subverts it. Just as a family of four settles into a lake house for a peaceful vacation, they encounter two teenage boys who have other — more sadistic — plans for them. The slow-burn descent into nightmare occurs as the boys ingratiate themselves into the family, only to kill off each member one by one after psychologically torturing them into submission. Haneke’s tone is so controlled and matter-of-fact that it’s unsettling to the core, particularly when the perpetrators break the fourth wall, making the audience complicit in their senseless violent acts. At one point, the killers turn to the camera and ask, “What are you looking at and why?” This nihilism and cavalier approach to violence is what makes “Funny Games” the unbearable watch that it is.
“Heaven Knows What” (2015)
What makes Benny and Josh Safdie’s heroin-fueled drama so compelling and brutal isn’t just the realistic acting from star Arielle Holmes, but the fact that the subject matter was a behind-the-scenes reality for her. Holmes was a heroin addict when Josh Safdie met her in New York and convinced her to write a narrative of her experiences, which was used to create “Heaven Knows What.” She was even on methadone during the filming of the movie, which makes her performance an unbearable fusion of non-fiction and narrative drama. In the film, Holmes plays Hayley, a beggar in New York City who has an on-and-off relationship with her boyfriend Ilya, played by Caleb Landry Jones. With physical fighting and attempted suicide, the drug-use movie can draw some serious parallels to the troubling heroin-dependent relationship in “Sid and Nancy.” The film taps into the real struggle of survival for addicts and the shocking dependency they have on the drugs that help them slowly deteriorate. “Heaven Knows What” will make you feel deeply uncomfortable — just as the Safdie brothers had intended.
“The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence” (2011)
Certainly more talked about than watched, “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” was so horrifying that it could be deemed surreal, or more accurately nightmarish. Writer-director Tom Six decided his violently nauseating film wasn’t enough, prompting him to make a sequel. In it, an abused and mentally challenged man named Martin Lomax (Laurence R. Harvey) is obsessed with”First Sequence” and decides that he’d like to try the sadistic experiment of creating a human centipede. Instead of linking just three people together, sewing mouth to anus while inducing other painful horrors on the subjects, he decides to try 12. Another strange, seemingly unnecessary meta addition, is Martin’s decision to include the actress from the first film, Ashlyn Yennie, playing herself, in his brutal chain. Kidnapping, murder, rape and torture adorn the screen, populating a film that is sickening to the point of utter absurdity. Some could consider watching it a form of masochism.
Harrowing is hardly a strong enough word to describe this harshly violent French crime thriller starring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. That doesn’t stop it, though, from being one of the most impactful cinematic experiences in recent film history. Setting the story in reverse chronological order, “Irreversible” begins to show the events surrounding the brutal rape of a beautiful woman and the vengeance that is being sought for it. With its stark cinematography and its general air of fear and despair, the film brings new meaning to the term avant-garde cinema, incorporating some of the cinematic techniques and themes that were often taken for granted in their time. But the fact that such a movie is so brutal should not deter the point that not only was it ahead of its time, but it will very likely get much better with age, with its principal themes becoming more and more relevant as the years go on.
“Panic in Needle Park” (1971)
With its unflinching dive into the catastrophic crossroads of love and drug addiction, Jerry Schatzberg’s “The Panic in Needle Park” is a crippling predecessor to “Requiem for a Dream” and “Heaven Knows What.” Starring Kitty Winn and Al Pacino as lovers who betray one another as addiction takes hold, the film viscerally shows the cycle of anguish and hysteria that keeps addicts spinning to their downfalls. Featuring one of Pacino’s most under-seen tour-de-forces, the film also spotlights the pressure that links addicts with loved ones as it turns Kitty’s descent into a shocking cautionary tale. Never shying away from its graphic nature (it made headlines for allegedly showing actual intravenous heroin use on camera) or the emotional burden its two lovers face, “Panic” remains the lynchpin of drug-afflicted romance films.
“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
Darren Aronofsky’s startling 2000 drama showed the reveries of addiction and how easily reality could shatter the temporary happiness drugs create. The film chronicles four different characters and the psychological effects of their addiction in what seemingly is one of the most realistic, dramatic movies about drug abuse thus far. Harry, played by Jared Leto, finds a safe haven in heroin, along with his girlfriend and best friend, played by Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans. Harry’s mother Sara, played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn, becomes addicted to weight-loss amphetamine pills. Each of the four have their own dreams: Harry to start his own business, his girlfriend Marion to own her own boutique and disconnect from her controlling parents, his best friend Tyrone to make enough money to move out of his lower-income area and make his deceased mother proud, and Sara to lose enough weight to fit into an old dress and go on a television show. “Requiem for a Dream” starts out happily and gradually starts to become more and more bleak. The mind-blowing ending of the film combines Clint Mansell’s intense score and short cuts between each character, leaving any viewer overwhelmed.
“Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975)
One of the most debated films of all time, “Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom,” directed by the Italian-French artist Pier Paolo Pasolini, ranges in descriptions, from being considered a masterpiece to a nauseating film of pornographic violence. Based on Marquis de Sade’s 18th-century work that focused on French society, the torturous tale was given a new setting and cultural context: Fascist Italy in 1944. Four Fascist libertines captured nine boys and nine girls, subjecting them to various forms of physical and mental abuse. The four men — the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President — over the course of four segments redefine what it means to be sadistic. They fulfill their erotic and cruel fantasies. The men torture the children in a sexual, graphic and violent manner. The images overshadow the Marxist words and abstract political messages. Within the context of Fascism’s fall, the film explores the raw evilness that lies within the human spirit. For many, it was too graphic to watch, however many critics claim it is a must see film.
“A Serbian Film” (2010)
Here it is, the infamous “Serbian Film,” a movie so nefarious, so notoriously vile, it’s almost as hard to find someone who’s watched it all the way through as it is to actually watch it all the way through yourself. A former porn star in need of money is tricked into joining a snuff film, and ends up making a career out of it. When he tries to leave, bad things happen. Like, really bad things. Made with surprising formal prowess (if you can keep your eyes open), this fiercely pissed-off movie is an alleged allegory — emphasis on “gory” — for the various atrocities committed by the Serbian government. Again, allegedly. Whether you agree or care is irrelevant, since no one watching this can think about such pseudo-philosophical things when a man is anally raping a shrieking woman while simultaneously hacking her head off with a knife. We’re not going to try to convince you to watch this, nor will we claim to have watched it all the way through in one sitting, but we will say that it’s not the worst movie we’ve ever seen. Unbearable, maybe, but Spasojevic lights and frames each shot with deft precision, something that you may not notice once you’ve gouged out your own eyes. He even seems to lace his (unwatchable, soul-purging) movie with ironic and irreverent humor, an inside joke to which only he is privy. Regardless, he directs the hell out of this. He obviously knows what he’s doing, which means he’s not incompetent, just perhaps insane. You may feel like a worse human for having watched it, but you shouldn’t.
“Se7en” follows the workings of a serial killer who picks his victims based on the seven deadly sins: Gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, lust and envy. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman star as two homicide detectives trying to unravel the intricate and well-planned murders. As the gruesome murders continue, they learn more and more about the killer and his sadistic need to kill. What makes David Fincher’s “Se7eN” unsettling isn’t necessarily the crime scenes (although they aren’t very pretty), but the work behind them. The serial killer presents a troubling look at the human mind and what it is capable of. The iconic “What’s in the box?” scene will leave you disturbed and possibly uneasy anytime you have a package delivered.
Gross in the sense that this intensely gory movie will be seared into the catacombs of your mind forever, “Snowtown” announced the arrival of a prodigiously talented young filmmaker named Justin Kurzel, whose newest film, “Macbeth,” starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, just premiered at Cannes. It’s gross in the sense that instead of the amoral, fiendishly depraved killers we’re used to, we get young people who have been hurt and manipulated and pulled into violence. Pedophilia, rape, incest and murder are all present and accounted for, but this might be the most upsetting movie on the list — instead of reveling in homophobia and bigotry like “In a Glass Cage,” it show us how evil hatred is. It shows us very clearly. A classic of modern horror, “Snowtown” will mess you up.
“Valhalla Rising” (2009)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising” is extraordinarily jarring, jam-packed with an impressive amount of raw action. This is, naturally, to be expected from a film about Crusaders with an enslaved warrior named One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) as a protagonist, and yet “Valhalla Rising” takes the adventure to new heights of brutality. Taking place over 1,000 years ago, the movie focuses on One-Eye and other unnamed characters’ unthinkably violent Crusade journey. It’s saturated with enough blood, gore, fighting, impalements and beheadings to satisfy even the most intensity-seeking of viewers.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011)
There’s not much dialogue in Lynne Ramsay’s suburban psychological thriller “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” As embodied by Tilda Swinton, Eva is an unremarkable wife and mother coming to grips with the sociopathic and homicidal tendencies (and, eventually, actions) of her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller). The film unfolds like a collection of out-of-order memories, as Eva mentally tracks her son’s budding resentment and deceptiveness. As an eerie slow-burn, there’s something about Ramsay’s vision that always keeps you on the edge of your seat, even if it’s often not clear why. As Eva sifts through her life to understand how her son unraveled, she herself begins to unravel. And as this bleak downward spiral emerges clearer, the intimacy and relatability of the story renders “Kevin” near-unbearable to watch. Because although quiet and imbued with a very subtle layer of menace, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is the most unnerving kind of horror film. It’s of the kind that’s just ordinary enough to hit close to home, and yet just heightened enough to seriously freak you out.