Certain movies leave you feeling heavier than before you watched them. They make you confront the darker aspects of yourself and the world around you. These films are dark dramas. What makes dark drama such a special genre is that it encompasses others, especially thrillers and psychological drama. The battle between hope and nihilism is the center stage of these stories. They may even leave you surprised at which side you choose.
All of these films tackle “taboo” subjects that usually remain hidden in the dark. Unlike horror movies, they won’t leave you looking behind you for the monster. You will be looking within. Are you prepared to peer through the darkness?
Best Dark Dramas
Some dark dramas, like this one, offer laughter through the tears. Sometimes you even forget the true darkness that these characters face. Randle Patrick McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) has the same effect on the patients in the mental institution with him. Randle transitions from trickery to vulnerability several times throughout the film. We end up questioning where the line is between complete sanity and mental illness. Filmmakers stay true to the 1962 novel by filming on location at Oregon State Hospital. Patients were even part of the crew, and some cast members slept alongside them in the ward at night.
In Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, a group of sisters attempts to make it through their teenage years alive—a mission harder than you may think. This is perfectly told in the famous line, “obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl,” when a psychiatrist accuses one of the suicidal sisters of not yet understanding how bad life can get. Sofia Coppola tells the story with light and dreamy imagery that beautifully contrasts with the original novel’s subject matter.
After Susanna (Winona Ryder) attempts to commit suicide, she gets committed to a psychiatric hospital that holds a stunning cast of characters. One of these characters is Lisa (Angelina Jolie). Lisa is rebellious, charming, sociopathic, and provokes Susanna’s darker side. The film is an adaptation of a memoir written by a psychiatric patient in the 1960s. The darkness in this film lies in truthfulness; how easy it is to fall into “insanity” in a society of strict rules. The combined forces of fragility (Daisy, played by Brittany Murphy) and brutality (Lisa) exist not only in this film, but in us and the world around us.
Watching a film in the wrong order is a dizzying and sometimes nauseating experience. Compounding the nausea is the fact that in this film, the main character carves little reminders into his flesh. Tattoos act as reminders to help solve a murder mystery. Leonard (Guy Pearce) has retrograde amnesia, meaning he can’t store recent memories. Regardless of his illness, he is determined to hunt down and kill his wife’s murderer—something he may or may not have already done. He leaves clues for himself on his body, like the one across his chest that reads, “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”
Guy Pearce’s narration throughout the film makes it feel more like a documentary. Watching the scenes in non-chronological order places the audience in Leonard’s shoes. With this lack of context, the audience and the main character share the same struggle. This makes it easier to empathize with Leonard, creating an ironically memorable and dreadfully dark experience.
In this novel adaptation, Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) uses beautiful flowers as poison. Milk is cinema’s favorite symbol of nutrition and purity. Naturally, this is what Ingrid uses to deliver her poison. This coming-of-age story takes place in one foster home after the next, each abusive in its own way. Astrid (Ingrid’s daughter) grows to be familiar with darkness in its many deceiving forms, which we, the audience, fully absorb.
To watch this movie is to watch a human being eaten away from the inside. Trevor (Christian Bale) hasn’t slept in a year. On top of that, he is hardly able to eat. This film, like Memento, also plays with memory and lack thereof. We watch Trevor devolve into madness in a physical state that resembles a corpse. What causes this slow and torturous turmoil?
Director Brad Anderson perfectly captures this pained and physically ill character. This is most likely due to his having to direct from a gurney after hurting his back on set. Christian Bale also let the fictional narrative seep into reality.
To play Trevor, Bale dropped 62 pounds to portray this skeleton character. He only had six weeks before the screen test for his next film (Batman Begins) to gain the weight back. While this all signifies a dedicated artist, it also carries agonizing darkness that is palpable to the audience.
An incredibly dark look at what is the ultimate ideal of beauty—the ballerina. Nina (Natalie Portman) strives for complete perfection. This leads to intense mental derailment and self-harm that gets lost in what is a normal ballet dancer’s routine of stretches and massages. Both Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis (Lily) underwent months of dance choreography training to move as a ballet dancer must, resulting in beautiful physical performances alongside mental anguish. Director Darren Aronofsky perfectly displays how beauty and darkness oftentimes coexist.
A suicidal train jumper discusses the meaning of life with the man that pulled him from the tracks. The dialogue is the most important aspect of this film; it’s practically the only aspect. There is no distraction from the beautiful dialogue between two nameless characters. Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars alongside his positive counterpart, Samuel L. Jackson.You’ll test your own will as these powerful actors argue over life and if it’s worth living. The heaviness that follows this film may feel like a burden, but you will be able to bear it with a reignited inner world.
A woman’s discontent with motherhood was a relatively unexplored theme before the mid-2000s. Lynn Ramsey directs this novel adaption where color theory leads the way. Kevin (Ezra Miller) is the first child of Eva (Tilda Swinton). Eva notices Kevin’s violent tendencies, and Kevin notices her dislike for him, all while his father (John C. Reilly) gaslights Eva into thinking nothing is wrong. The film is eerily quiet, like the atmosphere before a storm hits. Kevin commits one monstrous act after another, leading to the question: What becomes of a mother who has birthed evil into the world?
The only hope this film has to offer is false. One of the most depressing films in cinematic history, Melancholia embraces its darkness, a darkness that shines through during life’s banal moments and moments that should be happy. The world of this film soaks you in blue and sets you in slow motion. Melancholia (a planet) threatens to destroy Earth and earthlings alike. One of those earthlings, the clinically depressed Justine, does not fear Melancholia or its impending doom. She embraces it and seems to view it as a familiar part of herself. The impactful performances by the cast (Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland) give a shocking realism to a story that could otherwise be outlandish. The way melancholy eclipses the brain feels like the end of the world.
Joy raises her son Jack in a room beneath her abductor’s shed. To Jack, the room makes up his entire world. The tone of the film darkens when the responsibility to escape falls on his small shoulders. The mother and son duo played by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay balance each other perfectly. The child possesses hopeful contentment, while the mother is jaded and depressed. The characters mirror the room itself. It’s a dark hole in the ground that only has a small window for light. For Joy, Jacob is that small source of light.
“Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” This impactful Pulitzer Prize-winning play is born again as an Oscar Award-winning film. Denzel Washington directs and stars in a role that is as powerful as it is painful. Troy (Denzel Washington) and Rose (Viola Davis) navigate family life through tragedy and deceit. The film makes for an intimate look at generational trauma. Each generation tries to rebuild life from the rubble of their parents’ storm.
It’s colorful and uncomfortable. Being set close to Disney World, the land of dreams, lures us into a false sense of happiness and hope. Things are much darker under the surface, as Halley’s methods of making rent begin to put her child (Moonee, age six) in danger. Some aspects of childhood remain joyous in poverty. Others, like security, are almost unattainable. The film displays this perfectly, showing the small family’s happy moments alongside their stress. The surreal ending that some may call bizarre leaves us wondering about what a happy childhood is and who has the privilege of having one.
Lynn Ramsey’s bold and daring film found its first audience at Cannes Film Festival. The story tackles the rawest and most taboo subjects. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is on a mission to rescue Nina (daughter of a New York State Senator) from a sex trafficking ring. While looking for Nina and fighting those who entrap her, Joe battles with his own mind. Trauma-caused mental illness threatens to take his life before he can save hers. Darkest of all, the film seems to lift a veil of secrecy that hides New York City’s dark underground. Because it cuts between scenes of dark fantasies and an even darker reality, watching this film is a breathless experience.
Once while on a Greyhound bus in Texas, director Martin McDonagh saw three billboards, all pushing the same theme. This visual inspired his film about a grieving mother named Mildred (Frances McDormand) who seeks justice. Attempting to force a neglectful police department into action, Mildred purchases three billboards. They read “RAPED WHILE DYING,” “STILL NO ARRESTS?,” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Mildred Hayes was written with Frances McDormand in mind, making for a seamless blend between actor and character. This film forces us to sit in her agony as she demands the police and audience pay attention to an abominable crime that is far too common. These three billboards will linger in your mind far past the credit roll.
This story is one of accountability—not only for rapists but those who defend them and who deny victims. They fall prey to Cassie (Carey Mulligan), who creatively serves them vengeance one at a time. This revenge film indulges in the complexities of the subject. It is uniquely depressing moving, from the characters’ choices to the cinematography.
More Great Dark Drama Movies
- A Clockwork Orange (1971) Kubrick’s dystopian “ultra-violent” film focuses on a charming British thug and the attempts at rehabilitating him through forced psychological conditioning.
- Dolores Claiborne (1995) A Stephen King adaptation about a woman accused of murdering an old lady she spent years caring for. Kathy Bates says her role as Dolores is her favorite performance.
- Requiem for a Dream (2000) Four addicts deteriorate in their own disastrous delusions in this novel adaption.
- Morvern Callar (2002) Lynne Ramsay’s Scottish film explores a character’s deep denial and grief as she attempts to erase the only guarantee in life—death.
- Caroline (2009) A young girl discovers a portal to another world in her new home. From the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, this film is both creepy and charming.
- Fishtank (2009) Andrea Arnold directs this British film about an impoverished young woman facing an abusive home and a hostile world outside of it. As with most of Andrea Arnold’s films, this one is gritty and unrelenting.
- Tangerine (2015) Famously filmed on the iPhone 5s, this film focuses on sex workers—their relationship with each other and the outside world. Situations quickly transition between comical and dangerous, but the film’s big heart beats mightily throughout.
- Moonlight (2016) Largely shot in a Miami housing project, this film offers a semi-autobiographical look at growing up as a minority in a drug-filled Miami. We witness Chiron, a black gay child, transition in body, mind, and location in this Academy Award-winning film. It broke barriers on screen and on set, with the first black woman (Joi McMill) nominated for an editing Oscar, and the first Muslim (Mahershala Ali) to win an acting Oscar.