Considering that movies and psychology go together like chocolate and peanut butter, it’s kind of ironic that Sigmund Freud, the “Father of Psychology,” saw little value in film, even in the midst of cinema’s Golden Age. Thankfully, both fields have evolved over time and become more intertwined than ever. That said, there are several films teeming with so much psychological content that it’s near impossible to walk away without indulging in a little psychoanalysis. To this end, here are 12 psychological thrillers and dramadeys that place the spotlight on mental health for cinephiles to feed their inner-psychologists (and vice versa).
1. 'A Clockwork Orange' (1971)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Notorious and chilling, #StanleyKubrick’s adaptation of #AClockworkOrange is some of the most powerful cinema you can find. It’s not an easy watch at times, and if you’ve read the book, you can trust you know why. However, the film — much like the book — is great insight into what happens when classical conditioning is used to treat a blend of pathology that largely rests on antisocial personality disorder reinforced by a sex-consumed futuristic society.
2. 'The Conversation' (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
This Oscar-nominated film follows a surveillance agent's spiral into paralyzing guilt and paranoia when he learns of a plot for murder surrounding a couple he has been spying on. The film lost Best Picture to Coppola's Godfather Part II the same year (really, it's a shame that guy isn't more talented), but it was worthy of the award. The technology in The Conversation may also be a little dated, but the psychological content and commentary could not be more relevant in today's Wikileaks/Snowden, social media-driven society.
3. 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest' (1975)
Director: Miloš Forman
Inarguably one of the greatest psych-based films of all time based on one of the greatest psych-based books of all time, #OneFlewOvertheCuckoosNest follows a largely passive uprising against chillingly realistic abuse enforced by power-hungry mental health providers back in the scary days where ethics were more grey than psychologists generally care to admit. The take home point for actual psychologists: clients shouldn’t have to fight (passively or not) to be heard.
4. 'The Silence Of The Lambs' (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
As if anyone doesn't come across this movie when looking up psychological thrillers, #SilenceOfTheLambs is a critical analysis of the mind of a cannibalistic serial killer who is not-so-reluctantly-forced into helping police find another cannibalistic serial killer who is still at large. The core assumption behind the plot line is that “great minds think alike” (or at least great appetites do). Antony Hopkins famously won an #Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in the film, which only lasted about 15 minutes. While his acclaim is merited, it is #JodiFoster’s humanizing performance that gives us the lens to comprehend — and even relate to — his complex pathology.
5. 'Trainspotting' (1996)
Director: Danny Boyle
#Trainspotting is a black comedy indie-staple that’s probably best described as Requiem for a Dream with a spoonful of sugar. Known to host #EwanMcGregor’s breakout (and arguably still best) performance, the film follows a somewhat comical examination of the ups and downs of a heroin addict as he flirts with sobriety. People who believe the world is just should definitely watch this for a convincing counterargument — the oft deplorable main characters possess some of the greatest luck in the world and little karmatic retribution. However, Boyle’s painfully accurate depiction of withdrawal symptoms will likely draw upon sympathy reserves you didn’t even know you had.
6. 'Abre Los Ojos' (1997)
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
This Spanish-language film, which serves as the source material for #CameronCrowe’s English-language Vanilla Sky, follows a narcissistic playboy’s descent into a major depressive spiral following a debilitating car crash. As his life begins to turn around for the better, reality begins to crumble around him. This film does a spectacular job of questioning the subjectivity of reality and perception while simultaneously presenting people and relationships that feel alarmingly real. It’s excellent commentary what it can be like to work with clients who suffer from delusions and hallucinations, especially when the clinician is a part of them.
7. 'Mulholland Dr.' (2000)
Director: David Lynch
#DavidLynch's films are usually equally rich in psychological content and audience divisiveness. Mulholland Dr. is no exception, but thanks to an incredible performance from Naomi Watts and a complex plot line that incorporates noir, romance, fantasy, horror, supernatural elements, and even a little comedy, the film remains a must-watch for fans of psychological thrillers. If you find yourself in want of help of interpreting the meaning of the film, Lynch provides 10 separate clues that are usually most helpful upon second (or third) viewing. You can check also out some of the many of the fan interpretations of the film [insert obvious spoiler warning]. The main take home point is that — in this movie's case — a cigar is never just a cigar.
8. 'Requiem For A Dream' (2000)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
#RequiemForADream is the kind of film you only ever need to see once, despite it being truly excellent cinema. It seems like the staple of every high schooler’s first DVD collection, but this doesn’t mean that it’s meant for the coming-into-awareness crowd. The story follows four main characters as they get sucked down the drain of drug abuse — accidentally or not. While the focus seems to be on how their lives unravel due to addiction, this is truly a story about psychological regression to childhood states and the psychotropic means some people take to get there.
9. 'Memento' (2001)
Director: Christopher Nolan
It’s hard to find a movie that does memory loss correctly, but #Memento gets closer than most. #ChristopherNolan keenly uses permanent short term memory damage to create compelling drama that is rooted firmly in the mystery/noir genre, wherein the mystery isn’t actually what happened in the main character’s life to result in his brain damage, but what tasks he carries out because of it. Guy Pearce is superb in the film as the probable-protagonist who tattoos his own body in attempt to remember clues for a murder mystery he’s intent on solving.
10. 'Dahmer' (2002)
Director: David Jacobson
Named for one of the most notorious serial killers alive, no-budget, hardcore-indie #Dahmer is among the first to not play like a true crime documentary or a blood-guts-and-glory film. Rather, the film is a character study that doesn’t let the viewer shy away from some of the abuse and events that created Dahmer himself. Most surprisingly, the titular character (#JeremyRenner in his first star-turn) manages to elicit the No. 1 emotion you would never expect to experience for a cannibalistic murderer: Empathy. It’s an unbelievably terrific performance that you’ll almost wish you could forget.
11. 'Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind' (2004)
Director: Michel Gondry
Summarized best as a dramatic rom-com, #EternalSunshineoftheSpotlessMind largely follows the dreams of a man (played by a p-h-e-nomenal #JimCarrey) who decides to take drastic action by deleting his ex-lover (an equally phenomenal #KateWinslet) completely from his memory following a bitter break-up. However, halfway through the deletion-process, he changes his mind, thus taking the memories of his lover and the audience in an exciting chase across his subconscious. The film itself is truly ingenious for many reasons, but especially for its ability to make the audience think about memory, relationships, and the drastic cognitive steps that some people take to try to overcome a broken heart.
12. 'Melancholia' (2011)
Director: Lars von Trier
#Melancholia is one of the most visually stunning, accurate, and devastating portrayals of Major Depressive Disorder ever captured on film and, oddly enough, is probably Trier's most emotionally accessible film to date. #KirstenDunst plays the protagonist who is almost completely debilitated by her depression in a two-part film that dramatically shifts in tone from beginning (starting with her catastrophe of a wedding day) to end (the catastrophic end of the world). It's always a huge risk when the director decides to tell the end of the story in the film's first frame, but it's the performances that make the movie so mesmerizing.
What are some of your favorite psychologically-rich films to analyze?
A version of this post originally appeared on www.psychologyoffilm.com. For more film recommendations, character-limited movie rants, and over-the-top movie analyses, check @PsychOfFilm on Twitter.