Sometimes a breakdown is not just a breakdown. Sometimes, a breakdown is a symptom of something much bigger — and more nefarious — than a psychological collapse. A breakdown is often a breaking point, signaling the deep-rooted problems that underlie a troubled system. In cinema, terrain of metaphors, breakdowns are great vehicles for exposing systematic problems in a multi-faceted, humanistic way. Through the eyes of insanity, movies about breakdowns shed light on our darkest problems. Here are seven films featuring riveting mental breakdowns that caused us to look in the mirror a bit harder.
1. A Woman Under the Influence (1975)
Gena Rowlands delivers the paragon of mental breakdown performances in John Cassavetes’ masterpiece “A Woman Under the Influence.” Rowlands plays Mabel, a tortured housewife whose sanity dissolves into domestic terror that her husband (Peter Falk) is powerless to assuage. Cassavetes and Rowlands work together to ensure that Mabel’s spiraling descent into madness is as harrowing as possible: she is perpetually on the edge of crisis, whether guzzling booze and pills or quietly stewing in her inner rage. Though she and her husband are in love, it’s a desperate, manic kind of love that sees the couple failing to communicate and driving sexual politics to their most dangerous extremes. Mabel’s breakdown can be read as a rage against a suffocating patriarchy; her identity is tethered to her husband’s and her purpose guttered by the details of domesticity. Inside the carapace of deranged behavior is a person struggling to be free. Despite the fact that it’s tightly scripted, “A Woman Under the Influence” feels as visceral and candid as a work of cinéma vérité. Rowlands was nominated for an Oscar for the role. Breakdown: Patriarchy.
2. Melancholia (2011)
Lars von Trier’s epic, equal parts melodrama and sci-fi, is the story of a wedding at the end of the world. Kirsten Dunst delivers a career-best performance as a depressed woman, Justine, who gets cold feet at the altar. Numb to the joy she is expected to feel surrounding the occasion, the bride-to-be acts out and begins to alienate family members and her fiancé alike. She has random sex with wedding guests, disappears from the reception to be alone, and eventually turns catatonic. The operatic score and fantastical visuals give Justine’s emotions a larger-than-life amplitude. As if things couldn’t get any worse, news arrives that a strange planet is on a collision course with Earth. The end is nigh. It is here, in the face of mass destruction, that Justine finds serenity. This inversion renders “Melancholia” a chilling and brilliant portrait of depression. Justine is at peace amidst an impending sense of doom and panic — for a depressed person, every day feels like the apocalypse. Breakdown: Treatment of depression.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
If every megalomaniac has his gloaming, Paul Thomas Anderson certainly doesn’t spare the protagonist of “There Will Be Blood” from a karmic twist of fate. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel, a rapacious oil prospector who lies, manipulates and throws others under the bus in order to rise to the top. But when he ultimately doesn’t get his way, Daniel suffers a breakdown of ego and exacts a horrific and absurd act of revenge upon the least deserving soul of all. The “I drink your milkshake!” monologue in the bowling alley goes down in history as one of the finest closing scenes in contemporary cinema. After committing the senseless murder, Daniel casually mutters, “I’m finished,” and we witness the dark side of the American Dream rendered with unrelenting detail. Breakdown: Capitalism.
4. Breaking the Waves (1996)
Unshakeable faith can save lives just as easily as it can destroy them. In Lars von Trier’s masterpiece “Breaking the Waves,” Emily Watson conjures a harrowing picture of the latter. Her character, Bess, is a simple-minded woman from a remote, deeply religious village. She’s just been married, but shortly thereafter her husband suffers an accident that leaves him paralyzed. Bess’s husband descends into a deep depression and begins to manipulate her into having sex with other men. He lives vicariously through her actions while also deriving a sinister pleasure from her suffering on his behalf. Because she’s eternally devoted to both God and her husband, she obeys his orders, rationalizing her actions by seeing her husband’s requests as those of God. Bess leads herself down a disturbing path of destruction that becomes painful to watch and leads to her eventual demise. It’s an unforgettable performance in an unforgettable movie that will leave you reeling. With “Breaking the Waves,” von Trier exposes the perverse consequences of an unquestioning faith. Breakdown: Religion.
5. Safe (1994)
Todd Haynes’ remarkable second feature filters ’90s hyper-consumerism through the eyes of Carol White, played with unraveling nerve by Julianne Moore in what might just be her best performance of all time. Settled firmly in her uninspired marriage and her day-to-day housewife routine — gardening, dry cleaning, attending aerobics class and the hair salon — Carol slowly develops an unusual illness she believes is due to an allergic reaction to chemicals found in everyday consumer products. Her doctors diagnose no such medical issue, but with each passing day Carol’s symptoms get more violent and panic stricken. The ambiguity over the cause of Carol’s deteriorating health — is it an actual disease or just her own self-delusional emotions? — creates a subversive psychological thriller, and the effective duet between star and director capitalizes on the sinister edge of the dramatic social commentary. While Moore goes to dizzying extremes in her unshakeable performance, Haynes keeps the camera controlled and static, trapping Carol in many gorgeous long distance shots that engulf her in her materialistic surroundings. Thanks to these two, “Safe” might as well be one of the most effective horror films ever made. Breakdown: Consumerism.
– Zack Sharf
6. Apocalypse Now (1979)
We all know war breeds insanity, but apparently this credo also extends to film sets. “Apocalypse Now’s” notoriously troubled production received another wrench in the form of a drunk and uncontrollable Marlon Brando who’d forgotten his lines and was grievously unprepared for the role. But movie ultimately benefits from Brando’s break with sanity — the actor’s drunken tirades, though schizophrenic in nature, are replete with philosophy detailing moral relativity, solipsism, and political empiricism. In other words, Brando’s character’s crazy ramblings, though borne of insanity, speak to the truth of mass murder and the perils of war. In his character, an AWOL soldier-turned-war-lord, one can’t help but think of Adolf Hilter. Breakdown: War.
7. The Aviator (2004)
Martin Scorsese has long been a master at shattering the masculine complex (see “Taxi Driver”), which was probably part of the reason he was so attracted to the true story of American business magnate Howard Hughes. Chronicling Hughes’ genius through a handful of his most ambitious projects, Scorsese never loses sight of the biopic’s structural spine: Hughes’ mental breakdown and escalating obsessive-compulsive disorder. The more fame, money and success the entrepreneur secures, the more paranoia and depression derail his very existence. Mental breakdowns on film have been mined for all sorts of emotional experiences, but Scorsese cuts right to the soul of it and exposes its tragedy. Hughes’ forward thinking mind allowed him to seize the American Dream and lose it all in a storm of mental anguish. His mind was as intellectually stimulated as it was emotionally crippled, and the contradictions that fueled his success and downfall are what make “The Aviator” a drama of the highest order. Breakdown: Capitalism. – Zack Sharf
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