The Essentials: Depressing Films

My girlfriend Hannah reminded the other day that Fall is approaching, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the changing seasons than to talk about another kind of fall. The fall of your heart as it is crushed by an effective tragedy, of course!

It’s been a while since we’ve had an essentials list on U&M, and what better way to reignite the series than with the most upsetting, depressing movies I’ve seen? As always, the films will be listed in chronological order, and I’m going to try to pick movies you may not have seen.


Ingmar Bergman’s tale of a pastor who has lost his faith is filled with cold imagery and even colder people. There’s Tomas, the pastor who no longer has hope, Marta, the schoolteacher riddled with a debilitating skin disease who loves Tomas without reciprocation, and then there’s Jonas, a man who is so scared of nuclear apocalypse that he takes his own life not even an hour after asking his pastor for guidance. Winter Light is the bleakest film in Bergman’s astoundingly bleak filmography, focusing on characters and situations that lack hope of any kind. Tomas is lost from religion, from love, from friendship, and from nature. He resides in the coldest part of the world and refuses to light the coals of his heater. The films takes place mostly in real time between the morning and afternoon services of a local Lutheran church, and in this time, Tomas sinks further and further into an existential abyss. Every time I watch this movie it takes me at least a week to recover. 



John Cassavetes’s classic about a woman so constrained by suburban American life that she becomes unhinged is one of the most riveting portraits of mental illness I’ve ever seen. Mabel, played here by the fantastic Gena Rowlands, is plagued by an inability to grasp simple social understanding. Her husband, a blue-collar construction worker who just wants to come home to a peaceful house, is constantly having to keep his wife out of trouble, and, in return, Mabel can never feel like an equal to him. The paradox of Mabel’s condition is that she requires respect and understanding, and those are the two things that her behavior makes impossible for him to give. Cassavetes spends much of the movie focusing on awkward pauses and exchanging, repeating certain lines of dialogue and gestures so often that it is maddening. Rowlands injects so much realism into her character that the audience forgets that a movie is on screen. We’re just watching a woman slowly go insane, and we watch her husband helplessly try to save her.


 DOGVILLE (2003)

Of course, this entire list could be made up Lars Von Trier films, but, at the end of the day, this is still the most upsetting of his movies in my eyes. Breaking the Waves takes the cake for being the saddest, but Dogville is the one that makes me squirm and look away. This is the one that stays with me. And it all has to do with that third act, when another stranger comes to town. Trier’s minimalist staging aids the film’s themes and characters, and the set-ups throughout the movie are delivered spectacularly in the conclusion. If you haven’t seen this film, but you’re more aware of Trier’s most recent efforts, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. It’ll hurt your soul. 


Sam Bicke sells office furniture by day and obsesses over the music of Leonard Bernstein by night. His wife has left him, his boss exploits him, and the president of the United States is running for re-election on the same promise he didn’t deliver on his first term. Sam has nobody to talk to, and so he takes to writing letters to Bernstein about a plan he has to get famous. Maybe if he kills the president, life will turn around for him. Maybe then he’ll get the respect he deserves. Niels Mueller’s film is a constant onslaught of sad, horrifying misery. It never lets up, from its opening frame until the end of the closing credits. You will feel Sam’s pain for months. 


  MARTYRS (2008)

I’ve never been more disgusted, horrified, upset, and depressed over a movie than I was over Martyrs. To summarize the plot is to give too much away. It’s best (worst?) to walk into this one cold. All I can say is that the movie will shake the very foundations of your moral sensibilities. It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me physically sick watching it. It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that begins with an introduction by the director straight up apologizing for his film. If any of this sounds appealing to you, go right ahead and watch. I’m sure for some of you it’s not that bad. And, in all honesty, it could have been worse, but this movie really, really upsets me, and in that way, it’s the most depressing, heart-wrenching, soul-crushing movie I’ve ever seen.

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