8 Really, Really Uncomfortable Films
Unbehagen is the German word for discomfort or unease. Horror films shock but the best supernatural films are suffused with the melancholy of loss (‘The Others’, ‘The Orphanage’, ‘The Innocents’). Then there are the films that go to uncomfortable places. ‘Goodfellas’ made good on the ever-present threat in gangster films to explode into violence, and even a musical proved it could be uncomfortable in ‘Dancer in the Dark’. But many unease-making films fall between genres.
High on the list must be Brad Anderson’s ‘The Machinist’, in which Christian Bale plays an insomniac industrial worker slowly wasting away to skeletal form. Everyone avoids him except for the local prostitute and a sympathetic night shift waitress, who wonders what is driving this tormented man’s transformation. Bale’s performance (and effects-free weight loss) is simply astonishing. Apart from starving himself to make the film, his inner torment seems to be gnawing away his flesh. The root of his trouble raises serious questions about guilt and redemption.
The nervous tension in ‘El Reino’ (The Realm) isn’t relieved by Olivier Arson’s score, which sounds like Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ retuned by a psychopath. Part thriller, part moral nightmare, the film is built around a sweat-inducing performance from the feral Antonio de la Torre, whose company’s Trumpian corruption is exposed almost in real time as he hurtles through offices and restaurants trying to keep his gonads from the grinder by realigning friends and enemies. It’s a course of action that finds him trapped on an office ledge and later driving at speed through pitch darkness without lights. Take tissues for your palms.
‘Buried’ is a step too far even for many suspense fans. There have been uneasy films set in cars, lifts and telephone boxes (‘The Bar’ is wholly set in – you guessed it) but this is entirely set in a coffin. Ryan Reynolds is the kidnapped civilian contractor in Iraq who awakens to find himself buried alive with only a mobile phone for company. If this is a scenario designed to give your deepest terrors of claustrophobic confinement a workout, now add suffocation and a snake. Naturally at moments of crisis his technology fails – as it fails us all – and director Rodrigo Cortés wrings every last drop of tension out of the situation. Utterly chest-squashing.
The Latinos sometimes get away with the most outrageously hokey plots because they tackle them with conviction. In the Argentinian ‘Penumbra’ the situation is simple and very real, but slides away from you into something genuinely upsetting. Victoria is a big city estate agent in Madrid, forced to come out to Buenos Aires and sell a flat. She’s impatient, the clock’s ticking, the client is late. When he turns up, he acts oddly and says he’s waiting for a friend…I always wondered about estate agents happily trotting off into dark houses to meet strangers, especially as I remember the true life Suzy Lamplugh case, in which an estate agent was lured to a house in Fulham by a ‘Mr Kipper’ and never seen again. Victoria slowly finds her confidence ebbing as the property accumulates unsavoury types. The build-up is blackly comic and deeply unnerving.
Michael Haneke’s ‘Time of the Wolf’ is a post-apocalyptic drama which throws Isabelle Huppert and her child into a pitiless world where survival means accepting your reduced status and abandoning compassion for pragmatism. A couple find their home occupied; they’ve missed the news that the world has suddenly changed. A single long scene in which Huppert attempts to keep a flame alight on a branch is heart-stopping, the whole film disturbing. Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’ is unbearably uncomfortable in both the original and the Hollywood versions, as two smart young men destroy a family and dare you, the audience, to stop watching. This is the better film.
Cormac McCarthy is never an easy read; ‘Blood Meridian’ was a descent into Dante’s Inferno, and ‘The Road’ is the darkest post-apocalypse vision yet committed to film. We’re a long way past the Extinction Event (coming to homes in the near future, it seems), when there is nothing left to live on and civilisation has fallen. But is there anything human left in humanity? The question asked here is how can you still find a scrap of hope when there is absolutely nothing left at all? A scene in a basement prompted walkouts when I saw it.
Lars Von Trier’s entire oeuvre counts as really uncomfortable, especially ‘Antichrist’, but early Guillermo del Toro works like ‘Cronos’ remain disturbing favourites. Still, here I’d pick Alex de la Iglesia’s ‘As Luck Would Have It’ for sheer discomfort. It’s a loose modern take on Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’, in which a jobless man suffers a horrendous accident at a smart event and must negotiate the film rights for his death in order to take revenge on the banks and save his family. It brings the original into the world of social media, heartbreakingly so.
And the eighth? As I compiled this list I realised I had hundreds of uncomfortable films to choose from in my collection, which suggests I seek out extreme films over the mundane. A collective 8 goes out to films like ‘The Hidden Face’, ‘Uncut Gems’, ‘Time Out’ and the master of them all, ‘Spoorloos’ (‘The Vanishing’).