10 Great Films That Use The Optimal Level of Violence

5. El Cobrador, in God We Trust (2006, Dir. Paul Leduc)

El Cobrador, in God We Trust

Setting aside the social commentary about how impoverished populations rise up in rebellion against wealthy oppressors through terrorism and murder, Cobrador takes us on a ride that intends to leave more questions than answers. Taking us from Brazil to a dentist’s office in New York, this book adaptation about what is due takes many liberties and becomes its own monster.

The plot itself morphs from place to place according to where in each character’s trail it is, changing tone, focus, and inner allegiances. Using well-known actors (mostly in the form of Peter Fonda), and well-known musical bands (Maldita Vecindad, while on location in Mexico), this movie takes the familiar and blends genres to concoct a potpourri of violent intentions, senseless murder justified by rage and emotional voids, and a quest for a just world that loses its original meaning over time.

Sure, from a non-diegetic discourse, the viewer is owed special effects where there should be explosions or blood in this movie, but the lack of what’s expected provides the situational irony that this film’s pitch-black humor calls for. It’s not at all a comedy, but it does explore the darkest recesses of humanity, and it’s one of those films where the viewer can even use its knowledge as an interesting trivia piece to give them hipster cred.

Following that very fetishization of social constructs, Cobrador takes you by the throat and drags you into an experimental work of art that leaves you cold but definitely not speechless.


4. American History X (1998, Dir. Tony Kaye)

American History X (1998)

This movie is more about the consequences of violence and how it divides society. What stands out about it is how uneasy it is guaranteed to leave the viewer. It’s definitely polarizing and some people find it cheesy and implausible, while others may regard it a realistic and a very sharp reflection of the bigotry that’s seen in today’s society.

Taking a familiar setting of a typical white-oppressed black neighborhood, shaky race relations are the fuel that propels this fiction into the uncanny valley of hate crime commentary. Narrated through a mix of flashback and present, this movie intertwines its stories by exploring the life and family of Derek Vinyard, a once black-hating criminal who after being released from jail is hellbent on removing his nephew from his family’s racist views that are sure to get him sucked into a backwards cycle of violence and hate.

In an Oedipal twist of classic proportions, it’s the good intentions after pulling out from a cesspool of irrational hatred what sinks our characters into a hopeless situation of blood smeared to cover more blood. Sprinkled with insights into the mentalities of fringe ideologies, common sense becomes twisted until the viewer is led into understanding of what makes hateful gears grind and be put into place.

Little by little, initially through logic and reason, supremacist groups in real life lose all notion of humanity when it comes to pinpointing the source of a country’s problems, providing ample discussion for a subject that is likely to remain controversial for most of the century to come. It also helps that this movie was laced with non race-related controversy in real life.


3. The Night of the Hunter (1955, Dir. Charles Laughton)

The Night of the Hunter

Blurring the line between reality and fiction, this meta children’s tale is based on the case of a serial killer who lacked much in the emotional intelligence department but made it up with an ability to outwardly seem “normal” (also blurring the lines between what’s normal and what’s not): Harry Powers (born Herman Drenth).

Regarded by Cahiers du cinéma in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, this movie definitely earns the title of “being ahead of its time”, providing ethereal perspectives of the characters’ actions, as if guided by an invisible, omniscient narrator. As is a theme in surreal movies with violent subject matters grounded in reality, religious domination is a tool used by the villain here to gain society’s trust and to control his surroundings.

Looking after a family treasure, preacher-murderer Harry Powell enacts righteous judgment in the form of killing through homicide and child torture. After the children flee from their new mom-killing beau, guarding their dying father’s wish to keep the money’s location a secret, their fight for survival lands them in difficult runaway situations, aided by a community too complacent to realize their complicity in helping the charismatic, almost-supernatural Powell.

Little blood is shed in this expressionist narrative (not a single drop in sight, in fact), but the way it deals with abuse during its time are a thing to praise, also considering how well this piece ages.


2. Hiroshima, mon Amour (1959, Dir. Alain Resnais)

Hiroshima, mon Amour

The appeal of violence in film comes in many ways, stemming from the need to make an image stand out. Hiroshima, mon Amour does not need to open with a snoozefest if its purpose is to be memorable. It opens as a documentary of sorts, as is typical from Resnais’s style, showing the horrors of the atom bomb and how it affects the perception of those merely observing the dead, lying silently upon piles of bodies, rendered unstable even after death by extreme levels of radiation.

Body parts, both living and decaying, become the setting of this love story, where the violence is shown through archive footage of a famous historical tragedy. Utilizing facts of life and a gorgeous organic setting that looks at Japan through a Western glass of sorts, the film evolves as do its character’ intentions.

Any fan of dark styles and aesthetics should be satisfied by this unapologetic mix of romance and a timeless tone-defying tale of a stranger in a bleeding land. Cultural differences are accentuated by how the characters react to woe and distress. While mostly tame and uneventful, the shock value of this movie has enough power to earn it a spot in this list.


1. In the Realm of the Senses (1976, Dir. Nagisa Oshima)

In the Realm of the Senses

Keeping with the theme, here’s a great work from a culture that universally captures the world’s fascination with its art: Japan. Following the infamous case of Sada Abe, this filmic adaptation of real-life events is so intense, it would be a challenge to forget it.

Anyone marginally versed in Spanish culture knows what a corrida is, and this movie takes its original title from a mental image of living life on the margin of emotion, where love is a force to reckon with, capable of driving you into unimaginable measures, and making you feel pursued by an unstoppable, uncontrollable force.

If dismemberment isn’t violent enough for you, justifying it with unbridled passion is guaranteed to win the support of at least one slightly deranged love fan. Parting from the unfathomable, this poetic tale of color and feeling makes the viewer dive into a setting where the temperature is white-hot and the danger of being hurt is felt with the heart as strongly as with the mind.

Warranting controversy, this movie begs to be considered a classic, and as the final entry in this list, it’s a fruitful discussion piece with no necessary ties to a specific time and place. It rings as true in the Land of the Rising Sun during the first half of the twentieth century as it does in the modern-day West. After all, what is a greater cause for violence than love?

What do you think of this list? Are there any other movies that deserve to be added here? Violence is surely the most ancient of tools carved by animals, as it is driven by instinct and resides in a primitive part of the brain. When used in film, it can be a call for action, serving as questioning of our customs, our ways of interacting with each other, or the road we’re collectively taking as a society.

Author Bio: Edgar C. Mans is an experimental product of multiple nationalities, several languages, many cultures and genetic mutations. A film student and writer at heart, Costa Rican-Panamanian Edgar strives to make a better world, and when he fails, he settles for being a more comfortable and adaptable creature in any given environment.