The 25 Best Films About Character’s Descent Into Madness

20. Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)

spider movie

A story more concerned with exhibiting the intricacy of mental illness, David Cronenberg’s Spider, is a 2002 psychological drama that stars the excellent Ralph Fiennes, as a deranged man struggling with hallucinations and constantly living in fear. Based on the novel of the same name, this is a slow-burning film, that much like Cronenberg’s other work, will crawl deep under your skin, leaving its nasty scar.

Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), or Spider as he is also known as, is a withdrawn and seemingly schizophrenic man, who arrives at a halfway house that appears to be close to where he lived as a child.

It is in this halfway house that we start to witness his mannerisms, such as his vital diary notes, odd clothing and his fear of a nearby gas tower. As the film progresses, we start to see how Spider imagines his childhood and his relationship with his mother and father.

We watch Cleg trying to figure out fact from fiction through these memory sequences, as he follows young Spider through his own past to try and piece together his life. When he revisits the primal scenes that evidently drove him insane, we begin to comprehend exactly why Cleg is the shattered man he is today.

Unable to tell too much of the plot without spoiling the movie, Spider is an intelligent and atmospheric film, that incorporates bleak scenery with a superb performance from the acting cast. With a feeling of alienation and depression throughout, Spider is a fascinating and bleak account of one man’s conflict with madness.


21. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

There Will Be Blood plainview

Over the years, Daniel Day Lewis has proven to be one of the most gifted and talented actors of our generation, arguably of all time. His performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic There Will be Blood only heightens this recognition. A grim tale of greed, treachery, obsession and violence, the film’s main character is portrayed as a ruthlessly hard-nosed and hollow man, who seems to be driven by nothing but pure hatred.

Daniel Plainview (Lewis) is in the oil business along with his adopted yet unloved son H.W. Despite being an over-ambitious and spiteful human being, Daniel becomes a self-made oil tycoon, achieved by his willingness to stop at nothing in order to get what he wants. Sometime later, Daniel is approached by a man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who informs him of oil underneath his family’s property, which proves to be the downfall for our protagonist.

With Paul’s brother Eli (also Paul Dano) the leader of the local church, proving to drive a hard bargain, a price of £5000 is agreed and oil production begins. However, a string of on-site disasters occur which only add to Plainview’s already volatile temperament. Daniel’s drive to succeed soon outweighs everything, from his handmade façade of his ‘family’, all the way to his own sanity.

An exceptionally powerful and wonderfully directed piece of cinema, There will be Blood is an uncomfortable and unapologetically bleak accomplishment that demands to be seen.


22. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)


To describe Martin Scorsese as one of the best directors of our time would be a criminal injustice, easily one of the most successfully prolific directors in recent times, ‘Marty’ has introduced us to some of the most outstanding and iconic films in years gone by. In 2010, Scorsese’s Shutter Island was released, a psychological thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, it was another box office smash.

The story follows Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule (DiCaprio and Ruffalo) as two U.S Marshalls who are investigating the disappearance of a patient, at a Hospital for the criminally insane. The hospital is run by Dr Crawley (Ben Kingsley) and is located on the menacing and stormy Shutter Island. Upon arrival at the hospital, the two police partners are met with suspicious and uncooperative attitudes from both Dr Crawley and the guards.

With an ominous tension in the air, Daniels soon senses something suspect in the surroundings of Shutter Island and convinced that information is being hidden from him, he sets of on his own crusade for answers.

When evidence and tip-offs soon unearth, Daniels notices deterioration in his mental awareness, yet feels compelled to keep searching. Disarrayed with hallucinations and flash-backs, Teddy’s investigation grows into a nightmare as he finds himself not only battling Shutter Island but his own mind as well.

Undoubtedly this is not Marty’s finest work of art; however this is still an intelligent and atmospheric thriller. With magnificent acting and a flawless directing performance, Shutter Island is a paranoid and claustrophobic puzzle that will keep you guessing.


23. The Black Swan (Darren Aranofsky, 2010)

Black Swan (2010)

Directed by Darren Aranofsky and starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassell, 2010’s Black Swan is a tense psychological thriller that revolves around the Swan Lake Ballet. A dark and disturbing story, we witness the demise of our main character’s mental well-being due to the demanding pressure the role has her put under.

When ballet director Thomas Leroy (Cassell) chooses to cast a newcomer for the dual role of both the White and the Black Swan, Nina (Portman), after some convincing, ultimately gets the part.

Whilst Thomas confirms that she is perfect for the performance of the White Swan, he criticises her for her inability to show her darker side and give in to the character of the Black Swan. He picks out a fellow dancer in the production, named Lily (Kunis), explaining that she has the quality for the ‘dark side’.

Through this proclamation, the burden begins, and when the two girls become closer, Nina’s psychosis collapses as she struggles to differentiate between reality and fiction. When sickening hallucinations leave her disorientated and disturbed, the heavier the tension becomes. As the opening night of the world’s most famous ballet looms, anarchy and confusion pursues, to an unsettling and horrifying climax.

Black Swan is a depressing but beautiful film that contains an Oscar winning performance from Natalie Portman. An emotionally draining yet captivating film, it will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.


24. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)


Many films involve the theme of a middle class family being jeopardized by crime or a mental illness of some sort. However few have such a powerful impact as 2011’s Take Shelter. A drama thriller directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, this masterpiece chronicles how a man deciphers whether his frightening dreams of an approaching storm are real, or if this is just the beginning of a mental illness that he has dreaded his whole life.

The story takes place in Ohio, USA with Curtis (Shannon) a quiet, thoughtful, working-class husband and father, who experiences daunting illusions and nightmares of a near-apocalyptic storm hitting his hometown, effectively killing his family. As the resulting paranoia worsens, Curtis seeks professional help and attends a counsellor, whilst starting to build a storm shelter in his back garden.

With all of this being shielded from his wife loyal wife Sam (Chastain) and their hearing-impaired young daughter, Curtis spends all his money and time on the shelter, until he suffers a seizure, forcing him to explain the situation.

However, despite being given the understanding and space from his family, it is not long before circumstances unravel and the powder keg is lit, sending Curtis spiralling uncontrollably in a crazed state of mind. In an emotional and thought provoking finish, the impending doom catches up with our protagonist in a truly memorable and gripping performance.

Despite a low budget and being relatively little known, Take Shelter is a compelling and intelligent stroke of genius from a hugely talented and up and coming director. Jeff Nichols shows a man trying to protect himself and his family from what he anticipates is coming, whether or not anyone believes him. With no shortage of paranoia and deception, Take Shelter is a phenomenal character study that will ignite debate with its fortunate viewers.


25. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Dunki, 2011)

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Despite being a rather difficult title to remember, Martha Marcy May Marlene is anything but forgettable after viewing. With his feature film debut, Sean Dunkin’s excellent 2011 drama, Elizabeth Olson produces a superb performance as a young woman suffering a harrowing struggle with paranoia and a worrying disconnection with society. The story is told through the use of flashbacks, thus expertly enhancing the perception of the disorientation that our main character endures.

The plot begins with Martha (Olson) escaping from a clearly harmful cult, that is led by their creepy ruler Patrick (John Hawkes). With seemingly nowhere else to turn, Martha contacts and is picked up by her older sister Lucy and taken to a lake house that is shared with Lucy’s husband Ted. With the relationship obviously already strained, conversation is awkward and limited but as Lucy and Ted soon find out, Martha is in need of urgent psychiatric help.

With Martha’s behaviour becoming increasingly disturbing and with a glaring conflict in decoding her ominous apparitions from real life, temperatures soar as her oppressive demons prevail, leading to a painful and sinister resolution.

Impressive performances all round in this uncomfortable and menacing little spine-chiller, which highlights the psychological damage to a young woman even after escaping the clutches of an evil cult. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an ominous and passionless observation in blending truth and madness that will leave you engrossed if not incensed.

Author Bio: Andrew Lowry lives in Bangor, Northern Ireland. He is a government worker by day, and cinephile by night.