Anyone can crack under enough pressure, but these warning signs in movies predict some of cinema history’s most iconic character breakdowns. By following multifaceted characters from the film’s beginning to its ending, we get a glimpse into their thinking patterns and learn how their interactions with themselves, the world, and the people in their lives shape their decision-making and the choices they make in the end. All this reveals to us what can make or break them.
These are 10 warning signs from movies that the main character is headed for a psychological breakdown.
10 Apocalypse Now
Warning sign: Willard Destroys the Hotel Room
Apocalypse Now is one of those movies that people tell you to watch if you want to see a serious war movie that doesn’t hold back. Vietnam, 1969. Colonel Kurtz has built a rebel army deep in the jungle, and Captain Willard, a veteran of the Special Forces, has been given top-secret orders to locate and assassinate him. Willard struggles against the lunacy that surrounds him as he dives further and deeper into the forest and succumbs to its hypnotic powers.
Francis Ford Coppola’s groundbreaking film from 1979 opens with Captain Benjamin Willard on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He’s traumatized, and there are a few telltale indicators the viewers can see right away. All we can feel at this moment is surprise, disbelief, and confusion. The movie focuses heavily on issues of mental health, and not only for Willard. Their effects extend to Colonel Walter E. Kurtz as well (Marlon Brando), the man they’re after. Whether or not he and his crew will survive the war’s brutal conditions and complete their mission is a mystery to the audience.
The scene in the hotel room has a few clear intentions; one is to show that the mind is fallible and that everyone has a breaking point by contrasting a mental breakdown with a captain, someone who is responsible for maintaining composure. The other could be to show that the things we see and experience in our daily lives can very likely be the source of our mental instability.
9 American Beauty
Warning sign: Colonel Fitts’s Repression
A great example of a movie from this time period that skillfully addresses a challenging issue head-on by taking us on a trip through the experience of a midlife crisis is American Beauty. Midlife disillusionment has hit Lester Burnham hard. Both his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane are selfish and apathetic, which he finds all the more irritating. Disillusioned with society, Lester Burnham chooses to withdraw from it entirely and focus only on what brings him joy.
There, he meets Ricky Fitts, the son of a homophobic colonel who can’t stand the thought of his kid not being composed or precisely what he wants in his eyes. Lester chooses to befriend Ricky, and Ricky ultimately starts selling pot to Lester. Colonel Fitts, Ricky’s dad, notices and finds their frequent meetings strange. The colonel’s intolerance for individuals who are different from him is severe, leading to the realization that he has repressed his own desires about being with another man. There are clearly numerous indicators throughout this movie that the colonel is on the verge of a mental breakdown, but it takes a clash to reveal his true character.
8 Boogie Nights
Warning sign: Bill Shows No Emotion at His Wife Having an Affair
The timeless movie Boogie Nights, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in 1999, sees the birth of the porn business in California, a moment that attracted individuals from all walks of life. Jack Horner, a porn director, hears about a young guy named Eddie Adams performing in a nightclub and quickly elevates Eddie, now known as Dirk Diggler, and his “gift” to the pinnacle of the pornographic business. The arrival of the 1980s, however, means that Dirk and his fellow pornographers must adjust not just to a new period but also to the legacy of the 1970s.
Assistant director, Bill Thompson, undergoes a psychotic break that is one of the film’s most memorable scenes. At a party where Bill and his wife are guests, he catches her having sex with another man in full view of the partygoers. Given how normally you would anticipate Bill to respond, which is anger, rapid wrath, and violence, his lack of response to his wife’s actions is almost unsettling.
This is surely a red flag, and his answer to the unavoidable question of whether he has any feelings for this is revealed in a scene from the New Year’s Eve party, where he once again walks in on his wife having sex with another man. But this time, during the final countdown, he enters the party, shooting his wife, the guy she’s with, and himself. As an intense psychological breakdown of a character, we find ourselves both disturbed and shocked.
7 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Warning sign: Billy Bibbit Breaking His Social Barriers
In the 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Randle McMurphy, a person with a checkered past, has once again found himself in legal hot water and is incarcerated. In order to get out of prison labor detail, McMurphy fakes insanity and is sent to a mental institution. Here, McMurphy experiences and watches Nurse Ratched’s cruel abuse of the other inmates in an attempt to raise her own prestige and power, bearing witness to it all.
To rebel, McMurphy and the other inmates establish an alliance. However, when we meet someone like Billy Bibbit, we can see right away that he is very timid and paralyzed by fear, which inhibits him from attempting to put himself out there and experience life. Fear is used throughout the film, most notably when Randle sneaks his female friend Candy into the house at night. As soon as Nurse Ratchet learns that Billy spent the night with Candy, she threatens to inform Billy’s mother.
From there, his anxiety rises as he is thrust back into the isolation and fear that led to his inability to overcome his social difficulties and, ultimately, his confinement in a mental institution. Billy’s reaction of shock and paralyzing fear should set up warning bells. His mother’s fear at learning of his connection with Candy is natural, but the audience can tell straight away that he has no need to be so frightened. The news that he commits suicide as a consequence of his mental breakdown comes as the last, devastating blow.
6 Black Swan
Warning sign: Nina Sayers’s Attempt to Break Through the Barrier of Perfection
Nina Sayers, a beautiful, delicate, and committed dancer, has worked for years in a prestigious New York City ballet company due to her unbridled desire for excellence. In his bold re-imagining of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s everlasting love classic, Swan Lake, dictatorial artistic director Thomas Leroy hires Nina as the Swan Queen after pushing his former student, Beth MacIntyre, into early retirement.
Brilliantly portrayed by Natalie Portman, her character struggles greatly against the barrier of her obsession with perfection. Through a series of hallucinations and imagined ideas, we see Nina’s mental collapse, which leads to the film’s climax and the eventual psychosocial disintegration of her character.
Warning sign: John DuPont’s Loss of Power Over Mark Shultz
Based on a true story, Foxcatcher is a devastating account of the friendship between two world-class wrestlers and a quirky multimillionaire. Wrestling champion brothers Mark and Dave Schultz of the United States join “Team Foxcatcher,” coached by zany entrepreneur John du Pont, to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. John’s disruptive behavior, however, poses a danger of engulfment to the whole group.
This 2014 sports film, expertly portrayed by Steve Carell, tells us what happens when someone has a lot of power and no one to share it with. Brothers and Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Shultz differ in subtle ways. David has a family and a life planned out for him, while Mark, the younger and more impressionable of the two, starts to work closely with John DuPont and is eventually taken under his wing.
Mark, played by Channing Tatum, is a young and husky athlete. On the surface, he is good at what he does but is easily taken advantage of in a variety of ways, such as using cocaine with John in a helicopter and acting almost as a personal servant to him. A big notable red flag is when John finally loses control over Mark, a power he has wielded throughout the movie. In the end, we watch John Dupont’s mental collapse coming on slowly, under the influence of drugs and envy.
4 A Clockwork Orange
Warning sign: The Big Test
In the 1971 film that most notably struck a cord in the psychological community, young man Alex DeLarge lives in a Britain of the not-too-distant future. His poor luck finally runs out when he is caught and given a life sentence for murder. Alex finds out about a trial program at the prison that seeks to rehabilitate violent inmates. He may be able to return to society sooner than anticipated with a reduced sentence if he is successful in the program.
We witness the terrifying experiment conducted on him by scientists and government officials who desperately want to get their hands on his mind in the hopes of remaking him into a better member of society. We observe the manipulation of his psyche and the effort to alter him for the better when he is forced, in a claustrophobic manner, to see certain frightening moving images in conjunction with the music he used to enjoy.
The official “test” for this is putting him in a room with a cruel man and a naked woman to see whether he acts on vengeance and desire. Alex’s instantaneous nausea at even contemplating any of these acts is a glaring red flag. He is made to feel physically ill because of his animosity, which, together with the manipulation treatment, should alert the audience that something is seriously wrong with this guy’s mental health. The genuine breakdown and psychological phenomena of the horrors of the mind are shown in a combination of Alex’s internal collapse and the world’s rejection of him following his release.
Warning sign: Riggan’s Ego Triumphs
The decline of a once-great actor in Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) offers some insightful psychological truths. The main character, Riggan Thomson, has a hard time dealing with the egotism that inevitably comes with his success. The massive success of the film in which he starred, Birdman, was released many years ago, and its sequels left him in a pitiful condition at a moment in modern history when he could not bear to face the reality of growing older and changing with the times.
The fact that Riggan’s ego follows him down the mountain despite his best efforts as both a star and director in the play What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a sobering reminder of the futility of trying to escape one’s past. Like in real life, he’s constantly reminded of his past failures, but he frantically wants to portray himself as someone capable of overcoming.
In Riggan’s fight, he is followed by Birdman, or his ego. The red flag that should jump out to the audience is Riggan’s surrender to his ego at the moment when he’s going about New York, and the Birdman is following him like a shadow. It represents the way our anxious and self-centered ideas permeate our brains. It floats “above them all” and tries to attach itself to Riggan, convincing him that his vanity will triumphantly take over and make all the choices going forward, causing Riggan’s mental health to deteriorate to the point of complete breakdown.
2 The Aviator
Warning sign: Howard Hughes’s Continual Fight Against OCD
The Aviator chronicles Howard Hughes’s life as a young, successful filmmaker and pilot, along with his lifelong struggle with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hughes’s OCD is shown here in some of its more extreme forms. The tragic irony of a film like this is that, in the background, he is plagued by his obsessions, which include cleanliness and solitude, but he has no qualms about flying or spending money on movies in the hopes that they will be successful.
The film gives us heavy warning signs to keep an eye out for, and although Howard’s major collapse at the film’s conclusion is the most evident, his obsessions are more subtly shown throughout the buildup to this point. Unfortunately, he lived in a period when his ailment was grossly misunderstood, which led his contemporaries and rivals in the business world to see his sickness as a sign of weakness and an opening for them to take advantage of him.
1 Taxi Driver
Warning sign: Travis’s Preference for Isolating Himself
The 1976 best picture winner Taxi Driver is the type of film that may make you scratch your head the first time you see it. Ex-Marine Travis Bickle is a loner and an impotent insomniac who spends his evenings in the 1970s New York City taxi business. His exploits as he drives and interacts with the world not only capture a raw energy he is not suited to but also prove that he is incompatible with any of it.
Through his narrations and bitter pleasure of viewing adult videos on his own terms, he underlines throughout the film how much the city sickens him. When he takes Betsy, a girl he meets, to an adult theater, we, as viewers, realize something is definitely wrong with his thinking, and his psyche is traveling in all kinds of places.
When he’s alone is when we get to glimpse the real Travis Bickle. Whether it’s his mind wandering when he drives or his getting in shape and constructing tools and gadgets to use with his firearms, he’s always thinking about something. It’s fascinating to see where this classic film’s protagonist ends up, but one thing is certain: Travis is comfortable when he’s left to his own introspective thoughts.