8 Really, Really Uncomfortable Films

Christopher Fowler
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').


Brooke (not verified) Fri, 02/10/2020 - 17:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"...I seek out extreme films over the mundane." You amaze me.

snowy (not verified) Sat, 03/10/2020 - 00:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Buried' has two problems, for me at least, the snake displays a wider emotional range than Ryan Reynolds, [to be completely honest the box is less wooden than him]. And the 'coffin' shrinks and grows between scenes, if they'd taken more care to fix the first problem the second would not be quite as obvious. [I'm not claustrophobic].

[Our host has probably seen everything ever committed to 'celluloid', so making suggestions is a challenge. And I've mention some of the most obvious ones before].


The Killing Room [2009], divides both critics and viewers, [you have to buy into the premise for the film to work] Hard to describe without spoilers.

Christopher Fowler Sat, 03/10/2020 - 08:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Killing Room has a score by Michael Nyman if memory serves, so that's a place.
And the coffin changing size is a brilliant device to suggest his changing mental state IMHO.

snowy (not verified) Sat, 03/10/2020 - 11:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Is there a bit of Nyman I've missed?

* <del>strolls</del> runs over to IMDb(Am) *

Boo, no composer listed....

Wikipedia says Bryan Tyler.... [sad face], [BT is a decent enough chap though!]

Hmmm... 'Coffin space as metaphor for emotional state', hmmm.... {again}.

Doesn't quite work for me, convention would be, size and illumination levels would track reverse exponential, smaller + darker over time until the very final fade to total black.


I mean you have to pity the poor DoP that had to set up the shots, [he must of felt like an author whose nice book/film blog is suddenly completely covered in chutney!]. First he has to establish a credible world that is confined to a 6'x3'x2' box.

So she/he can do it with CU and POV shots, [even though Ryan Renolds would need a neck like a camel to see half of what he can see]. It's doable but it's going to be a very un-variable affair.

Its when the camera moves to a side on shot, it breaks through the established boundaries of the 'world' and destroys the illusion, [being widescreen doesn't help].

[There was another film I thought to mention, it's either Icelandic.. or Norwegian or Scandi, three 'Viking-ish' warriors cross somewhere to do... something, it's not exactly clear, there isn't a lot of dialogue. They for some reason consume some mushroom and one of them gets buggered to death face down in a bog, [a real bog with moss and everything]. But I can't remember whatit is called! Annoying that!]

Gary Hart (not verified) Sat, 03/10/2020 - 19:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh God! The Vanishing in the original dutch. I was petrified.
One of my all time favourites since.
It was just so magnificently tense all the way through.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 03/10/2020 - 20:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have almost controllable claustrophobia. I could accept the expanding contracting coffin as an image of mental state because it would really portray my mental state under those circumstances. The problem is, of course, that there is no way I would voluntarily watch that film, probably because the imagery would be so accurate.

Peter Dixon (not verified) Sun, 04/10/2020 - 10:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Buggered in a bog' is quite a good phrase........
'Do you want Trump to win the election?'
'No, frankly I'd rather be buggered face down in a bog'.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 05/10/2020 - 15:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'Man Bites Dog' would be my choice - you'll need a very black and warped sense of humour to sit through it.

Joel Stein (not verified) Mon, 05/10/2020 - 18:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Have you watched the original "Changeling" with George C Scott and Trish Van Der Vere? There's a scene in that that could bring tears to your eyes where a ghostly small boy wants his "medal". The suspense where Scott tries to make a bleary audio tape understandable is incredible.

Christopher Fowler Mon, 05/10/2020 - 20:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Changeling is a favourite, directed by delightful Peter 'Darlink' Medak, who also made 'The Ruling Class'. I jumped when the piano played a ghostly note.

'Calvaire' is another one worth looking at - especially for the astounding 'dance' in the middle!

Dawn Andrews (not verified) Tue, 06/10/2020 - 06:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Blue Velvet is at the top of my list for really uncomfortable. It's also the only time I've been in a cinema audience that cheered when the bad guy got shot!

Paul C (not verified) Tue, 06/10/2020 - 08:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This Friday 09 October there's a new book programme on BBC-2 at 7:30 called 'Between the Covers'

Good grief, an actual book programme on British television !

Christopher Fowler Tue, 06/10/2020 - 14:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It'll be interesting to see if it's any good (ie Mark Lawson quality) or BBC (talking to you as if you're a moron).

Patrick (not verified) Tue, 06/10/2020 - 16:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

[There was another film I thought to mention, it's either Icelandic.. or Norwegian or Scandi, three 'Viking-ish' warriors cross somewhere to do… something, it's not exactly clear, there isn't a lot of dialogue. They for some reason consume some mushroom and one of them gets buggered to death face down in a bog, [a real bog with moss and everything]. But I can't remember whatit is called! Annoying that!]

Valhalla Rising. Not many laughs.

snowy (not verified) Tue, 06/10/2020 - 22:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Have a good guess...?

<i>"Between The Covers is a brand new seven-part series hosted by <b>Sara Cox</b> designed to bring the nation together through sharing the enjoyment of reading".</i>

A quote from a BBC spokesdroid:-

<i>"The series is hosted by Sara Cox. Each programme features a panel of four different famous faces who will each bring with them their favourite book of all time to discuss with their fellow guests.

There are also two review sections, in each show the panel discusses the fiction book of the week, brought to life by a film of the author, the second selected book of the week has been written by one of Sara's celebrity guests. Here are the book picks and panel line up for each programme in order:

Sara Pascoe talks about her book Sex Power Money alongside panellists Tom Allen, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Phil Wang. Matt Haig's The Midnight Library is Book Of The Week.

Richard Osman talks about his book Thursday Murder Club with fellow panellists Lolly Adefope, Ricky Wilson and Ellie Taylor. Ingrid Persaud's Love After Love is Book Of The Week.

Sophie Ward talks about her novel Love And Other Thought Experiments alongside panellists Rebecca Front, Ade Adepitan and Bill Bailey. Steve Cavanagh's Fifty Fifty is Book Of The Week.

Will Young talks about his autobiographical account of To Be A Gay Man with Jo Brand, Ade Edmonson and Andi Oshu. Louise Hare's This Lovely City is Book Of The Week.

Alan Davies talks about this autobiography Just Ignore Him alongside panellists Laura Whitmore, Anita Rani and Russell Kane. Clare Chambers' Small Pleasures is Book Of The Week.

Babita Sharma talks about her book, The Corner Shop with Meera Syal, Guvna B and Dave Gorman. Bolu Babalola's Love In Colour is Book Of The Week.

Graham Norton talks about his novel Home Stretch alongside panellists Grace Dent, Ben Miller and Desiree Burch. Stuart Turton's The Devil And The Dark Water is Book Of The Week.</i>

snowy (not verified) Wed, 07/10/2020 - 22:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Patrick, I'm sure you are right, [I thought it was VR, until I started to read plot synopses and absolutely none of them mentioned mushrooms, let alone... you know, so I convinced myself that I was burning the wrong longboat].

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 08/10/2020 - 05:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Those are famous faces? There are only two that I have ever seen before and none of the books sounds familiar either. What is missing from my reading life? Just now I'm reading Middlesex, which is absolutely enthralling and very very funny in a number of places.

Patrick (not verified) Thu, 08/10/2020 - 22:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy, I can remember the tripping scene but not sure about the face down in a bog bit, so it might not be it. It was one of those films you're glad to have seen but wouldn't particularly want to revisit. Always cheers me up to think that Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed this and other rather violent films, also made a Miss Marple!

snowy (not verified) Thu, 08/10/2020 - 23:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm becoming increasingly convinced, but the closest I can get to a direct reference is:

"The film's hellish, pared-back arthouse aesthetic is certainly not to everyone's taste and might in part explain its disastrous box office returns, but such is the power of Mikkelsen's towering central performance and Morten Søborg's arresting cinematography that Valhalla Rising avoids becoming the cinematic equivalent of a coffee table book.

The insanity that grips the Crusaders is most effectively portrayed during the film's central chapter (it is split into six parts with self-explanatory titles such as "silent warrior" and "hell"), in which their voyage across the ocean is met with disaster when a thick fog shrouds both the boat and their collective reasoning.

A crucifix is erected upon finally arriving at this new land, but it offers no safety from the arrows that are regularly loosed at them from the forest by unknown assailants, while the dearth of animals or fruit also eats into their dwindling faith.

Their growing despair is allowed to manifest <i>when they drink a psychotropic brew and their base instincts are unleashed</i> in a scene that has the look and feel of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor video and could well have served as an influence on Ben Wheatley's A Field In England (2013)."

<i>Quote from: Three Rows Back 'Great Films You Need To See — Valhalla Rising (2009)'</i>

[As my memory re-builds itself, the 'non-concentual counter-contour agriculture' bit is inter-cut with other scenes of violent mayhem that breaks out as they lose their minds. When they recover their senses the realise that they are trapped in Hell, surrounded by an unseen enemy and now half their number lay dead].

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 09/10/2020 - 02:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Could we revisit the 'non-concentual counter-contour agriculture' bit ? Are we resisting plowing (or ploughing) against the grain?

Jonah (not verified) Fri, 09/10/2020 - 16:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Discomfort slowly grows until becoming unbearable in Michael Haneke's disturbing "Funny Games" filmed in German in 1997 and remade by the director 10 years in English. I've only seen the German version but apparently the English version is almost shot-by-shot identical, and, unlike the Hollywood version of "The Vanishing", doesn't cop out on the ending.
For surreal discomfort, there's 1981's "Possession" from Andrjez Zulawski, particularly the intense violent scene of Isabella Adjani's seizure/miscarriage alone in the damp subway tunnel.

Dawn Andrews (not verified) Sat, 10/10/2020 - 07:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks boys, I now have a list of films to watch before skipping off to the euthanasia cafe for a glass of sparkling cyanide.