Here are 11 films which often inspire discomfort within the audience in different degrees and ways; a vague term perhaps, but most of the entries on the list manage to actually be discomforting without always having to rely on overtly violent, gory or sexually explicit scenes.
None of the films could be categorically defined as clear-cut horror films and it is also worth pointing out that is not simply listing all the films that could be considered ‘disturbing’, so great films as they may be, those expecting titles like ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980),‘Irréversible’(2003), ‘Martyrs’ (2008) may be disappointed.
Opposed to simply repulsing the audience (although some films on here will undoubtedly do that) these films are meant to make you uncomfortable or get under your skin.
11. Four Lions (2010)
A mild on to start with. Only the contentious but satirical genius Chris Morris would have the audacity to make a ‘comedy’ about suicide bombers – one of the biggest fears in the post 9/11 world. Morris tackles the sordid subject matter brilliantly and sticks the audience’s face right up against it to uncomfortable effect, yet somehow he often has us sympathising with the bombers – they are funny and they barely have an idea about what they are doing. ‘Four Lions’ produces wholesome results from such a dangerous combination.
The Most Uncomfortable Scene: Though it is still undeniably funny and through no fault of the film’s own, watching the ending scene showing the group’s attempt to bomb the London Marathon is given an extra edge of discomfort after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
10. The King Of Comedy (1982)
The second so-called comedy of the list – this neglected Scorsese classic deals heavily with ‘those people’ – the ones who simply will not get the message when you do not particularly like them and they persist to hang around, an awkward situation for anyone and The King Of Comedy takes it to the extreme. Allegedly inspired by John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan in order to ‘impress’ Jodie Foster – The King Of Comedy puts the viewer directly inside the head of a sociopath with uneasily humorous results.
You will laugh at The King Of Comedy infrequently, not specifically because it is funny, but as a defence mechanism; scenes of Rupert Pupkin cooped up in his basement chatting with cardboard cut-outs of celebrities or waiting unwelcomely in the TV station’s reception are both funny and even scary. In fact, it is really scary when you think about it. Famously, The King Of Comedy was such an unpleasant film to make that it brought a brief end to the now magisterial collaborations of Scorsese and De Niro.
The Most Uncomfortable Scene: The awkward sequence in which Pupkin unexpectedly turns up at Jerry’s house with a girlfriend; the moment seems to be teetering between a full-on farce and exploding into violence.
9. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Apart from two highly restrained scenes of violence, Martha Marcy May Marlene is brimming with menace and disquiet without ever actually showing us any bloodshed. The film places us with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen in her debut) after breaking away from being in a David Koresh-like cult in the Catskill Mountains for two years. She then spends her time living with her sister and her sister’s husband in their large lake house struggling to readapt to the ordinary norms of civilization.
Martha Marcy May Marlene unravels in a non-linear fashion cleverly creating suspense in both times frames; in the past she is always out of her depth with some sinister happening always seeming to be abound, whereas in the present it is herself who seems to be a possible threat to those near with her increasingly unstable demeanour. This is an achingly foreboding film bolstered by Olsen’s mesmerizing performance.
The Most Uncomfortable Scene: [SPOILER] The very last scene in which Martha is being driven to her first therapy session where a car begins to follow – her fate is left undisclosed and the film leaves you feeling cold and uneasy as it fades to black.
8. Possession (1981)
What an uncompromisingly strange film – ‘Possession’ is a heavy mix of divorce drama, horror, mystery and slimy monster movie all coming together to make an intensely disorientating watch.What ‘Possession’ is actually ‘about’ is something that has troubled audiences and critics for years; whether it is a comment on Germany’s divided state at the time with the inclusion of doppelgangers and themes of infidelity or simply just an exercise in excessive madness and discomfort is anyone’s guess. Andrzej Zulawski however (the director) colourfully describes it as simply being about “a woman who fucks with an octopus.”
The camera seems to have a mind of its own in certain scenes, instinctively sweeping and dollying around to follow the actors as they pace around their boxy apartments adding to the steadily increasing anxiety. Isabelle Adjani more-or-less transcended standard acting for the portrayal of Anna and became a total maniac for the production; the result is one of extreme cinemas most extraordinary performances that she allegedly could not shake off for years after the shoot.
The Most Uncomfortable Scene: Without a doubt the now notorious scene in the subway in which Anna has the most violent ‘miscarriage’ of all time.
7. This Is England (2006)
Set during 1983, ‘This Is England’ tells the story Shaun, a young and impressionable boywhose father has died in the recent Falklands conflict and is taken in by a local gang of skinheads where he is given a sense of belonging and identity. Soon after, the vicious and racist gang leader Combo returns from a prison sentence to steer Shaun into becoming an extremist like himself.
Boasting his ability to twist relatable and amusing kitchen-sink realism into shockingly violent and disturbing scenarios as he did with ‘A Room For Romeo Brass’ (1999) and ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ (2004), Shane Meadows here turns his vision to race conflicts and youth in the Margret Thatcher era to create a semi-biographical and bleakvision of working class Britain in the 1980s. The cast is uniformly brilliant giving naturalisticbordering on improvised performances (as per in a Meadows film) but Stephen Graham steals it by carving out a truly frightening figure in Combo.
The Most Uncomfortable Scene: The robbery of the Asian’s shop. A very ugly and appalling scene indeed.