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15 Great Nihilistic Movies That Are Worth Your Time

09 June 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Luca Badaloni

best nihilistic movies

The word Nihil is Latin root of nihilism. Nihil means nothingness. Commonly nihilism is employed in the expression of Nietzschean philosophy, connected with Übermensch or eternal return theories.

Sometimes it is forgotten that Nietzsche promoted a “good” nihilism, as a starting point for new values; on the other side of the coin is the “bad” nihilism, embodied by the Marquis De Sade’s philosophy. So by connecting three key words, Nihilism, Sadism and Willful Nothingness, key influences relative to several filmmakers are achieved.

The Nihilistic world view is the expression of a pure void, ethically speaking, and cinema is a prime method of expressing this philosophy. There are a number of films which could fit into this category. Nihilism is a “behind the scenes” motivator and it is not seemingly uncommon to find movies based on this point of view.

At times this worldview is depicted as a status more than a purpose, or it is reduced to particular characters within the film. Nihilism is pure negation, of philosophy itself (and cinema as well), and theoretically speaking it is impossible to show the quality perfectly through the camera’s eye (to better understand this statement one might consider Carmelo Bene’s standpoints).

Often spectators misunderstand nihilism and confuse it with cynicism, skepticism or relativism. All of these words are related and have a common root, Nihil. To summarize: a Nihilist character will often be cynical, skeptical, relativist or any and all of these qualities; on the other side of this equation, a cynical character is not always a nihilist.

Once this is understood, it is easy to understand that cinema is full of various examples of nihilism. Sometimes directors clearly take on nihilistic-misanthropic viewpoints where nihilism is the central topic or the final aim of the film. Here is a guide to nihilistic films worth watching.

 

15. Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)

Fargo

Imagine a film whose plot involves two crazy killers hired by a man with money problems, whose idea for resolving this problem is to kidnap his own wife. Imagine also that his wealthy father-in-law loves his daughter as much as his money. This sets the stage for a lot of blood, craziness and cynicism.

Fargo is not completely nihilistic, but it features a truly nihilistic character, one of the two killers, Gaer (played by Peter Stormare). At the end of the film, there’s no clear victory for justice, so the viewer will be left with  the sensation of a no redemption ending due to the complete absence of values embodied by the killer. Fargo is a bit harsh and cynical, more than nihilistic. However, this film is one of the masterpieces of two nihilistic cinema makers: the Coen brothers.

 

14. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

american-beauty

As people reach their middle years of 40 to 50 or so, they start to become fearful of passing time. This is a comprehensible feeling. Problems often start when someone refuses to act their age and tries to appear and act like a younger person. Fear of the passage of time is deeply connected to a fear of nothingness,or a fear of weakness.

One may try to handle the problem but when the problem is fought, it’s an already lost battle; the fighter will fall in the abyss of nihilism. Man is nothing compared to death. American Beauty is a film based on fear more than nihilism, but a second element of the film is the secret motivation of the main character Lester Burnham (amazingly played by Kevin Spacey). He wants something that he knows he cannot have anymore: youth.

 

13. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1993)

reservoir dogs acting

Six criminals are involved in a diamond robbery, one of them is an undercover policeman. This film is a famous Quentin Tarantino effort. What is the message of this film? This thought: blood begets blood. Death recalls death. No one can stop this endless spiral of violence. Justice and goodness are annihilated. This is a very crude form of nihilism but it’s so effective and clear-cut as to be clearly understandable.

There are several themes in this film and nihilism is not a visible philosophy in film history. Rarely is nihilism a central quest. This film presents a different circumstance; it is evident that nihilism constitutes a transparent basis of the plot. Except for Mr.Blonde (Michael Madsen), the characters are not openly nihilistic but they routinely accept the evil side of the world, because they’re criminals.

 

12. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Hunter Thompson, godfather of Gonzo journalism, joined forces with director Terry Gilliam with amazing results. This film is a psychedelic trip to Las Vegas, which ends up an abyss of drugs and delirium.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas perfectly illustrates the failure of an entire generation, or better yet, an entire revolution: the hippie revolution of the 1960s. Hunter Thompson, documenting with his delirious writing  style, decides to ingest all the possible (and impossible) drugs of this earth along with his lawyer in a hotel room in Las Vegas.

Terry Gilliam does a fine job of replicating the book’s nihilism. Johnny Depp, portraying Thompson, gives one of his best performances. On first viewing, a lot of people could not understand the message of this film. This is not just a delirious film about drugs but something more besides. In the view of this film the entire American dream ended in drugs and nothingness.

 

11. American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

american-psycho

A wealthy 1980s Wall Street businessman, Patrick Bateman, has a problem: he kills anyone who bothers him in any way. The plot is so simple that it’s also impossible not to show nihilism in any clearer way. This is the first movie on this list which focuses on the pure sadism of the main character (played by Christian Bale).  

In particular it perfectly shows the impossibility of redeeming the crazed serial killing main character. Nihilism is represented in a classical spiral form, which absorbs everything surrounding it. Mary Harron also inserts an ironic quality which gives a special touch to the complex, almost nietzschean tale.

 

10. Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)

Match Point

Virtually all of Woody Allen’s films feature nihilistic stories or nihilistic characters. With this dramatic film, Allen reached the pinnacle of nihilism. Imagine someone killing someone else with no justice coming to render punishment. This is not a happy world vision. Allen brilliantly creates a psychological drama without any redemption as is present in other of his films.

Match Point shows the cruelty of man in its purist form. Allen not only show how evil can subvert justice but also how the sustainers of justice can end up being far from “winners”. This film cites Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, but Allen mocks him by inverting the destiny of his Crime and Punishment character Raskolnikov: no prison, a “happy” ending for the killer and no triumph of love.

 

9. La Grande Bouffe (Marco Ferreri, 1973)

La Grande Bouffe

Marco Ferreri is another masterful director of nihilist films and characters. In this movie he creates one of his best films. Four rich bourgeois decide to meet together in a villa. What is their purpose? Death by eating and other indulgent vices is the plan. This deceptively simple plot renders a pearl in the cinematic ocean and will give much more to the viewer after rethinking the film carefully.

The first half of the movie is openly comic, almost grotesque, while the second half becomes decidedly absurd and sad. When the time comes in which  someone decides to die, the choice ends in a strange way to die, that of a healthy, reasonable person participating in facing death. Marco Ferreri has shown the way in which wealth can bring false happiness. The best part of the film concerns the way Ferreri switches from the comic tone of the first part to the melancholy tone of the second part seamlessly.

 

 

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  • Nicolas Baires

    I would have put Big Lebowski as number 1! The rest of the list is great.

  • Boom!

    No, “Synecdoche, New York”, About Schmidt or Harold and Maude? You missed so many perfect movies for a nihilist.

  • Grzegorz Główny

    not bad

  • Xanian

    A decent list, but while Requiem for a Dream is indeed an amazing film, and one of my favorites, I don’t think it deserves to be on a nihilistic films list. The message is too strong for it to qualify as nihilistic, also, there is no character who is inherently nihilistic in the film.

    • Boom!

      90% of these movies don’t have a nihilistic message.
      Nihilistic movies should be comically chaotic or should have neutral ending where just everything continues in a monotone tone. The message should be endless repetition into nothingness.

  • Vaz zy

    If Serbian Film is not nihilistic wat else is

    • JesterRaiin

      Life.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    As a Nihilist myself, I think I have finally figured out why I find Fear and Loathing so appealing/relatable.

    Salo is just garbage though.

    • AЯCHIE MOOЯE

      other way around.

      • Bryton Cherrier

        What?

        • AЯCHIE MOOЯE

          Fear and Loathing is unwatchable garbage and Saló is a masterpiece with a lot to say.

  • J.Mak

    This list is not nihilistic. All the characters have an agenda. A true nihilist has no objective. That’s the whole point. As well, the writer obviously has a negative view point on what nihilism is, the bias shows. Just because someone doesn’t have a moral objective, doesn’t mean they are prone to kill people, or exhibit some quality that most consider depraved. In fact, usually the opposite. A nihilist will have no meaning to murder, or the like, because a nihilist has no meaning. There are far better movies that express nihilism, and not just in single characters, but films that are wholly nihilistic in themselves.

    • JesterRaiin

      Seconding that.

      “Ex nihilo” – something out of nothing – is the term more fitting here.

    • Ankur Deb

      I was expecting ‘The Big Lebowski’ to be on top since the protagonist is nihilistic and comparing it’s start and end, nothing much changes.

    • JLink

      Great response. This list is rather unimaginative.

    • miljenko

      Please cite your example(s).

    • Nancy Hall

      Fargo is kind of the opposite of nihilistic. All the bad guys get what’s coming to them in the form of a smart, cheerful, pregnant cop. It’s a real triumph of good over evil. One of the final scenes features Marge and her honey, Norm, snuggling in bed and declaring their love for each other as they anticipate the birth of their child. That’s about as life affirming and hopeful as it gets. There were also elements of hope in American Beauty and No Country for Old Men.

    • Senjougahara

      Could you point me towards some examples if you don’t mind, I have an interest in nihilism and its portrayal in media.

  • Koushik Bokkisa

    without Tyler Durden, the list is incomplete

  • Hiram Manrah

    i may be wrong .
    but isn’t Naked (1993) a Nihilistic Movie?
    and an awesome one ?

  • AЯCHIE MOOЯE

    No Béla Tarr .. or The Death King??

  • marcel

    How about Big Trouble (2002)? What say you?

  • Μέτα Μεσονύχτιας

    “Nihilism is not only despair and negation,

    but above all the desire to despair and to negate”
    http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2015/15-great-nihilistic-movies-that-are-worth-your-time/2/

    • Bob Sacamano

      Yeah….
      Nope.

  • Vincenzo Politi

    Very well written list!

  • HLLH

    Nihil means nothing, not nothingness.

    • Nancy Hall

      I think that’s the essential problem with trying to make a list of nothing.

  • Penny Layne

    There should be Lilya 4-Ever, Happiness and Suicide Room included in this list.

  • Bob Sacamano

    Do… Do you know what nihilism is?
    I know comments have been made about this already, but seriously. This ain’t nihilism. Fucking “Clockwork Orange” is basically the OPPOSITE of nihlism.

  • Klaus Dannick

    Missing some classic film noir titles here. Also, American Psycho again?

  • Maximus Decimus

    yes i agree , almost all coens movies are nihilistic , at some point they are even unwatchable but they are amazing in their own way.

  • Sean Pettis

    I hope this isn’t seen as an attempt to hijack the conversation, but I recently completed a short film that I consider to be incredibly nihilistic. I’d love to hear some thoughts from folks who are actually interested in the subject of nihilism (and film in general): https://vimeo.com/138585508 – Cheers.

    • Groove

      hmmm… Nothing.

  • Mathilda Perez Dock

    Some of my favorite films; recently re-watched American Psycho. More transgressive than nihilistic but still in the genre. Great list.

  • James Do

    I wouldn’t go as far to call Anton Chigurh a nihilist. Despite his impulsivity to kill, he has a set of morals. He believes in those.

  • Mikaela Maria M

    Do not confuse fatalistic and nihilistic

  • Akshay Shetty

    ‘Melancholia’ should top any list which prescribes the N of Niilism. its nt abt the character but the entire premise of the film is grounded on the idea of nihilism.Life’s worthless…not an individual life but ccollective life on the entire planet is worthless.

  • Nithin M Sivan

    Isn’t Fight Club nihilistic ?

    • Ayoub Houbban

      Barely. Tyler Durden basically made an entire group surrender to his perspective of doing things, a sort of idealism they’ve taken as a belief. Made further acts of vandalism and pure evilness, sounds a lot like ‘MAKING AN EFFORT’ and ‘BELIEVING IN SOMETHING’ rather than just sitting around, smoking weed and just… chill.

  • Unkle Amon

    Ok, Haneke is on the list, Von Trier too. But where is Lynch?!

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    This strikes me more as a list of philosophically bleak films (as far as those I’ve seen go) than nihilist ones.

  • Jimi LaMort

    Most my fave films are on here, but it needs more Haneke.

  • Michael H. Smith

    This list is nothing without “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

  • Dan

    Joker in the dark knight?

  • Felony Jones

    the funny games movies— contrary to what everyone seems to think, ARE NOT shot for shot remakes. i can see how people make that mistake, they are very similar, particularly for about the first fifteen minutes. but they are very different, and both have very different aims. while the european fg is more a clever take on horror movies, it is a very european horror movie. the hollywood “remake” is more like a reboot. the american version, the better of the two, in my book, is actually a sharp critique of american horror films.

  • Ayoub Houbban

    If you want real, deep-ass nihilism portrayed in a very cynical, chilling way:
    Clerks
    A Coffee In Berlin
    The Great Beauty
    Whatever Works
    Tangerine
    The Turin Horse
    The Seventh Seal (The protagonist seeks ‘the meaning of life’, that ‘takes effort’ and therefore opposes the principles of nihilism which are based on bleakness and carelessness, but those who’ve got to understand the notion of the film can actually find out that… there’s no meaning in searching for a meaning of life, and that is the ultimate, A-list nihilist thing ever)
    A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
    Stranger Than Paradise
    Dancer In The Dark
    The Wrestler
    Enter the Void
    In Bruges
    The Hours
    Leviathan
    The Big Lebowski
    The Sacrifice
    The Man Who Wasn’t There

  • Groove

    This list is not nihilistic! this list is dumb. author of this article knows nothing about nihilism!

  • mi_nombre_RobertPaulson

    Suicide Club?

  • Mr Z

    If I want to see nihilism on camera I’ll turn on election news.