Self-destruction as a theme in film can be presented in different ways. The three main ways filmmakers explore self-destruction seem to be: mental health, suicide, and addiction.
These three concepts are not groundbreaking; they share similarities, but the way a film portrays them can be wildly different. Here are 10 great films that depict self-destruction.
10. Half Nelson (2006)
Half Nelson is a great character study about self-destruction: it’s about a teacher (played by Ryan Gosling) struggling with a drug problem. This movie fits into the “addiction” sub-genre of self-destruction films.
However, what makes Half Nelson such a fascinating portrait of self-destruction is the fact that Gosling’s character isn’t necessarily a complete trainwreck of a person. He’s what some may call a “high-functioning” addict, making Half Nelson one of the more complex films about self-destruction.
Half Nelson also briefly explores the main character’s personal and home life to give us a better picture of what the root of his problem might be. And even with that information there aren’t any easy answers regarding why a person that seems to have it together doesn’t. That is partly what makes Half Nelson’s story of self-destruction so moving.
It’s a film about the constant mistakes people make in life, and the struggle to mature and move past that. The conclusion is also a great example of how to create a strong open-ending: the film does not suggest that Gosling’s character will have an easy resolution, or that his problem will be solved at all.
9. Queen of Earth (2015)
Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to Listen Up Philip, another great film that also features self-destruction as a theme, was the surprising thriller Queen of Earth. In this film, Perry takes things a step further by giving his main character (played by Elisabeth Moss) a bigger hurdle to work with: her mental health is seen getting progressively worse throughout the course of the film.
This leads to disastrous consequences for not only the Elisabeth Moss’ character, but the people in her life. Queen of Earth has been compared to similar films about inner turmoil affecting other aspects of life, most notably: Persona, and Repulsion. Perry’s film is a masterpiece of tension.
8. Control (2007)
Control tells the true story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division who ended his life tragically at the age of 23. Aside from the fact that Control is based on a real life figure, what makes it such a great film is how different it feels from other movies that attempt to be great biopics; it’s a gorgeously shot film that feels very respectful to its subject matter.
We never get the sense that Control was made to profit off a famous dead person that young people have become enamored with. It’s a powerful look at the toll mental and physical health can take on a person. Despite achieving success with Joy Division, Curtis suffered deeply from depression and epilepsy. Control shows us ailments do not discriminate; it doesn’t matter if you’re a poetic rockstar, we’re unfortunately all at the mercy of our health.
7. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
The Virgin Suicides is a great film about a group of five sisters who make a suicide pact, and a group of boys that become fascinated with them. Originally a great novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the story loses none of its effect in Sofia Coppola’s adaptation.
In fact, it just might be one of the strongest examples of how to turn a dark novel into an appropriately moving work of film. It’s one of the few books published to actually benefit from a film adaptation. Coppola does a flawless job at taking teenage angst, a theme too easy to treat immaturely, and giving it the serious arthouse treatment.
6. Heaven Knows What (2014)
Heaven Knows What is not only a harrowing film about drug addiction, it’s also a unique look at the relationships drug addicts find themselves in with each other. From the very beginning this film lets you know it’s not playing around: if you’re not in the mood for something so rough, it will be a challenging watch.
Part of what makes this film so powerful is how it depicts a world right on the fringes of mainstream society, and how closely it follows those characters’ lives. It’s one of the rare films to get the portrayal of drug addicts right because it’s based on an unpublished memoir Arielle Holmes (who also stars in the film) wrote about her life experiences. Heaven Knows What is a film about self-destruction that never lets up.
As a side note, the Safdie brothers would go on to make one of the best films of 2017: Good Time. It shares the theme of self-destructive characters with Heaven Knows What (although Heaven Knows What may be the more intense film, depending on your tastes).