Culture

5 Deeply Unsettling Movie Scenes You Can't Un-See

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in ‘The Road’/Still © Magnolia Pictures

Editor's Note: Jonathan Moore is a Hawaii-based author whose first novel, Redheads, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. His second novel, Close Reach, is now available. We asked Jonathan to talk to us about the most unsettling movie scenes he's ever seen. Here's what he came up with.

If my second novel, Close Reach, is ever filmed, I'll need to apologize to the lead actresses. Close Reach isn't "The Bunny Game" - no actress would get branded on camera - but it would still require rough, unsettling movie scenes: Close Reach has nearly every form of death that can be dealt out on a boat. Women are kept naked in a cage; the antagonist drops darker hints of other tortures. Then there's the climax, which is brutal.

We're lucky to live in a society without much censorship.

It's theoretically possible to violate an obscenity law by writing a book, but I can't even imagine what that would look like. Films using live actors are more regulated, but for the most part, people are free to make any insane thing they want. The only real censorship is done by distributors or audiences: crossing too many lines may be a recipe for box office disaster.

Because my writing tends to edge into darkness, it makes sense to think about where the lines are. Some films make me blink because they're so real they hurt. I worry I've stumbled onto something I wasn't meant to see. Perhaps pain is private. Death is as intimate as love. But a film makes everything transparent. It shines a light through its characters, and throws them on the wall.

I think there's an unspoken contract between any kind of art and its audience. Art asks: don't look away. The audience says: fine, but remember we're here. Because we can't un-see what you show us.

Here are five films that came to mind as I wrote Close Reach. I liked some more than others, but each has scenes I'll never forget. And each found a different way to manage the balance between the command to watch and the desire to turn away.

"The English Patient" (1996)

Wait a minute - isn't this supposed to be a list of unsettling scenes? And isn't "The English Patient" an Academy Award-winning love story based on a Booker Prize-winning novel by the poet Michael Ondaatje?

Yes.

But do you remember the thumb scene? I always will. It works so well because it comes at you on every level. It's set up as a flashback, so that you feel tension in two points of time and space: in the film's present, in Italy, and in the film's past, in North Africa. You care about Willem Dafoe's character, so that when the Nazi officer (played perfectly by Jürgen Prochnow) starts talking about cutting, you can't look away. By the time the nurse comes in with a straight razor, you don't have a choice, because this is happening to you.

"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (2011)

Here's a movie with a dark chest full of unsettling scenes. Most of them involve terrible things happening to Rooney Mara's character, or to other women. But one scene stands out.

I have never watched a rape in a movie that lasted this long, or went into so much grinding detail, or that made me angrier. For all I know, the scene only lasts twenty seconds. But it feels like ten minutes. At first, I was angry for the character. In the next eight or nine minutes, I was angry at the filmmaker.

Perhaps that was the point: The character didn't have the option of simply cutting away to the next scene. Her only choice was to endure it, so the audience must as well.

But scenes like this make me wonder. If I watch, without turning away, am I becoming a victim of the scene, or am I somehow a participant? Does the director care? Is there a way to make something this gritty and real without being this gritty and real?

"Dead Calm" (1989)

About a third of the way through this movie, Nicole Kidman's character lets Billy Zane's character take her to bed. They're aboard her yacht, in the middle of the Pacific. But she's married, and loves her husband - who happens to be trapped on a sinking boat. And Billy Zane's a psychopath who has kidnapped her and left her husband to die.

This scene is non-violent, but deeply disturbing. Nicole Kidman never gets a voiceover where she says, "And then I did what I had to do, to stay alive. It left scars, of course."

The scene works because it doesn't explain itself, and she never explains it to us. Bereft of context, it would even be erotic. They are on a yacht, and that is Nicole Kidman. But there's nothing consensual or pleasant in this scene, and it's enough to make you look down a moment, and think.

"Eye of the Needle" (1981)

Based on Ken Follett's sublime World War II spy thriller, the entire last half-hour of this 1981 film is unsettling. It's also impossible to stop watching. Stuck in a cold marriage on a colder island off the coast of Scotland, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) makes a mistake when she sleeps with a German spy who washes ashore after a storm. The spy makes a worse mistake when he thinks Lucy will let him get back to Germany with his secrets. Lucy stops a radio transmission by shorting out the island's electrical system with her bare hand; the final scene, as the German tries to row away and Lucy stands on the beach with a pistol, is perfect. And painful.

"The Road" (2009)

This entire movie hurts to watch. It builds dread the way bricklayers build walls, and it surrounds you with it. Reading Cormac McCarthy's beautiful novel is hard enough - I first read it on a plane, in one sitting, and by the end I felt as if I'd been stuffed into a sack and beaten while listening to my family get killed and eaten somewhere nearby. I was drained for about two weeks. The movie takes that theme and runs with it. It's based on my favorite book, and it's one of my favorite movies. But I've only watched it once.

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