The 10 Best Movies Where Protagonists Have Mental Breakdowns

Some of the best movies feature a main character whose reality comes crashing down around them in dramatic ways.
The 10 Best Movies Where Protagonists Have Mental Breakdowns

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Everybody has those moments where life feels overwhelming, when it all gets a bit much to handle, like we're losing our minds a bit.

Well, it's a common occurrence in movies, and many characters have felt this way with all the crazy plots and developments that can happen in a script. Of course, cinema protagonists tend to go through the worst of the worst, and their worlds may literally crumble before them.

Whether it's due to work stress, overwhelming boredom, or mental illness, here are some of the best movies where a protagonist's sanity succumbs to pressure and results in a mental breakdown.

10. What About Bob? (1991)

We're kicking things off with a lighthearted comedy you may have missed from Bill Murray's filmography, directed by Frank Oz. Despite Bob (Murray) being the one in therapy, it's actually his psychiatrist who has the breakdown here—and it's because of Bob.

Bob's past doctors are exhausted by his constant need for reassurance, while the egotistical Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) doesn't appreciate the extent of his needs when he agrees to take Bob on.

Having just published his new self-help book "Baby Steps," Marvin rushes off on a family holiday and leaves Bob behind. Well, at least he tries to. Bob ends up intruding while Marvin tries to get him to leave, which would be a lot easier if Marvin's family didn't love him so much.

Bob is even invited to family birthday parties, which is when Marvin loses all patience and holds Bob at gunpoint. It's a psychotic breakdown for the ages that's still remembered to this day.

9. Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island is a darker kind of film that's set on an island prison for the criminally insane. Martin Scorsese gives us one of his best collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio, teaming up to deliver a nail-biting thriller with one of the most famous plot twists in cinema history.

US Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) doesn't have your usual stress-induced breakdown. He suffers with a serious personality disorder—one that he isn't aware of. He thinks he's investigating the case of a missing patient, but things aren't quite as they seem.

Scorsese's subtle nods to the concluding turn of events is what makes Shutter Island such a cinematic masterpiece. The fact that we follow Teddy's revelations alongside him means we're just as surprised by the ending as he is... and just as saddened.

8. American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty is a tale of American suburbia in all its false glory. The white picket fences and perfectly mowed lawns feel uncomfortable rather than idyllic as director Sam Mendes shines a light on the hollow nature of such a materialistic, rigid lifestyle.

A classic mid-life crisis story, American Beauty centers on the sudden switch of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) from advertising executive to fast food worker. He practically reverts back to a teenager, working out in the garage and neglecting his family duties.

Oh, and he tries to get it on with his daughter's cheerleader friend.

The black-comedy satire was Mendes's directorial debut, and what a debut it was! American Beauty won eight Academy Awards and has since been a hot topic for academics. Anybody who studies film has surely come across articles exploring American Beauty's themes and messages.

7. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now is one of the most heralded war films in history. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has a breakdown and goes AWOL during the Vietnam war, reaching a God-like stature in the jungle and waging a guerrilla war against the NVA/PLAF.

We don't actually meet Kurtz until the end of the movie, when Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) finally tracks him down as part of his mission. Accompanied by his young and unreliable team, Willard is sent to find the insane Captain and terminate him. Easier said than done!

Our protagonist also has a bit of a breakdown, with Apocalypse Now opening to Willard as a drunk mess in his hotel room, a result of being burned out from his time in the US Army. But for the most part, he keeps himself—and his team—together.

6. Falling Down (1993)

Falling Down features a mid-life crisis meltdown that takes place over the course of a single day.

Joel Schumacher's action flick doesn't have a buff hitman or government spy carrying its guns; instead, it's a divorced ex-defense engineer in a tie and glasses. Michael Douglas plays the falling man who becomes increasingly frustrated and violent towards every little hiccup.

From traffic jams to inconvenient convenience stores to new lunch menus, every trivial thing goes wrong for William and takes his day from bad to worse. We've all had those days that feel like the world is ganging up on us, but most of us don't pull out a rocket launcher in response...

Like American Beauty, Falling Down is basically an attack on commercialism and modern society. Set in Los Angeles, William's rampage across the city shows us so much as he travels on foot towards his daughter's birthday party with a briefcase full of woes.

5. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

A Woman Under the Influence was one of the first fifty movies to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, which now catalogs more than 800 titles as of 2021.

John Cassavetes was at his directorial peak when he made this fascinating drama, featuring an electric central performance by Gena Rowlands.

Housewives are an obvious choice for characters on the verge of a breakdown, cooped up in a house all day, doing chores and waiting around on their husbands and children... The tedium and isolation are bound to catch up to them!

And that's the case with Mabel, who begins the film as a heavy drinker, sending off her kids so she can have an affair. The stereotypical "crazy wife," Mabel's increasingly erratic behavior shorts the fuse in her marriage to blue-collar worker Nick (Peter Falk).

4. Carrie (1976)

Carrie was one of the best horror films to come out of the 1970s, a film buff classic that could never be remade to the same standard.

The Stephen-King-novel-turned-movie has been parodied and referenced hundreds of times in pop culture, with the blood-soaked 16-year-old most famously gracing our screens in Brian De Palma's adaptation.

Sissy Spacek stars as the shy teenager, whose religious fanatic mother shames anything to do with sex or menstruation. The kids at school go from throwing tampons at her after an accident in the shower to pouring a bucket of pig's blood over her head at prom.

Little do they know, Carrie has telekinetic powers. Breaking down from the built-up embarrassment, Carrie begins hallucinating and decides to set the school gym of fire—with everyone in it. She then goes home and casually takes a bath before crucifying her mother. Literally.

3. Surge (2020)

Surge was a hidden gem of 2020, mostly caught in film festivals and indie circles. There aren't a whole lot of characters as it basically just follows Ben Whishaw through London on a journey of self-destruction.

After a stressful shift as airport security, Joseph visits his stifling parents' house. Suddenly biting into a glass cup until his gums bleed is nothing compared to the other weird stuff Joseph gets up to. His spiralling rampage through the streets is both distressing and exhilarating.

The claustrophobic atmosphere created by director/writer Aneil Karia is tense, with Joseph like a coiled spring that explodes over the course of one day. Insane as he may seem, there's something strangely liberating in Joseph's complete surrender to do whatever he feels in the moment.

2. The Aviator (2004)

Like in Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio's mental breakdown in The Aviator spawns from a real illness rather than external circumstances. But instead of a personality disorder, Howard Hughes is gripped by OCD that slowly eats away at his highly successful life.

Pilot, filmmaker, inventor, and businessman, Howard Hughes was a real-life superstar and billionaire of the 1930s. Martin Scorsese directs DiCaprio in The Aviator, using a bipak color palette to match what would have been available on film during the era.

While his OCD niggles away at him, Hughes still manages to walk the red carpet, build planes, and get married. It isn't until his forties that the paranoia gets too much and Hughes locks himself in a room, planting microphones and picking up everything with a tissue.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

"You talkin' to me?" Yes, we are! That's Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, the role that launched him to fame.

Before Leonardo DiCaprio came along, Robert De Niro was Martin Scorsese's number one collaborator, having worked on nine (brilliant) features over the past 50 years, each ranking among cinema's greatest.

Taxi Driver is the ultimate character study, homing in on Travis Bickle's everyday life, habits, and degeneration.

Travis Bickle hates the urban decay of the streets he chooses to work as a New York cabbie. After an existential crisis, he starts stalking a woman, working out, and plotting to assassinate a local presidential candidate.

In his own warped rationale, Bickle only shoots people whom he believes to be an evil on society (i.e. the pimp of a teenage prostitute), making him one of the most analyzed and beloved anti-heroes in cinema.