The 16 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 16 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 my picks for the best movies where a protagonist's sanity succumbs to pressure and results in a mental breakdown.

16. What About Bob? (1991)

Directed by Frank Oz

Starring Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss, Julie Hagerty

Comedy (1h 39m)

7.0 on IMDb82% on RT

We're kicking things off with a lighthearted comedy you may have missed from Bill Murray's filmography, directed by Frank Oz. Despite Bob (played by Bill 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 (played by 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.

15. Safe (1995)

Directed by Todd Haynes

Starring Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris

Drama (1h 59m)

7.1 on IMDb87% on RT

The first spiralling suburban housewife on our list is Carol White (played by Julianne Moore). In a hyper-consumerist, self-help-saturated 90s Los Angeles, Carol spends her empty days doing pilates and renovation, being polite to everyone around her but lacking any deep connections.

Carol would have never guessed she'd end up running away to a New Age cult in the desert. After having sudden allergic reactions to the very air around her, Carol finds herself even more lonely than before, with even the doctors dismissing her medical claims.

Todd Haynes's feminist-infused psychological drama could pass as a horror for all its diseased, post-industrial eeriness. Sadly, Safe's incredible first act is let down by a dissatisfyingly ambiguous ending.

14. Melancholia (2011)

Directed by Lars von Trier

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland

Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 15m)

7.1 on IMDb79% on RT

Melancholia serves as the second installment in Lars von Trier's Depression Trilogy (along with Antichrist and Nymphomaniac), so you can assume it's not going to be the most uplifting watch.

You can't blame Von Trier for expressing his own experiences of depression through the medium of film. During a therapy session, the filmmaker was told depressed people act calmly in stressful situations because they automatically expect the worst anyway.

Thus came the idea of a nonchalant protagonist in the face of the apocalypse. Two very different mental breakdowns run parallel to each other, induced by the rogue planet "Melancholia" hurtling towards Earth.

Von Trier uses dream logic and a split narrative to explore the human psyche during a catastrophic disaster. Whereas Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) sinks into a numb depression, her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) goes frantic with anxiety.

13. Tully (2018)

Directed by Jason Reitman

Starring Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston

Comedy, Drama, Mystery (1h 35m)

6.9 on IMDb87% on RT

Charlize Theron is an actress unafraid to change her entire appearance for a role (e.g., Monster and Mad Max: Fury Road), and Tully is one great example to add to that list.

For Tully, Charlize Theron put on almost 50 pounds in just over three months to embody the role of Marlo, a burned-out mother to an unexpected third child.

When her rich brother pays for a night nanny named Tully (played by Mackenzie Davis), her life actually becomes even more complicated than before instead of being helped by the addition.

Marlo spends the entire movie trying not to succumb to a full-blown nervous breakdown, which takes a turn for the worse when Tully's true nature is revealed.

In this exploration of postpartum depression through the extremities of postpartum psychosis, director Jason Reitman hands us a raw and honest portrayal of modern motherhood.

12. Joker (2019)

Directed by Todd Phillips

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz

Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 2m)

8.4 on IMDb69% on RT

Drawing unabashed inspiration from Martin Scorsese's classic film Taxi Driver, Todd Phillips's Joker puts a supervillain spin on the usual character study—or the other way around, depending on how you look at it.

Instead of CGI, spandex, and overwhelming action, Todd Phillips gives us an origin story that plays out like an indie psychological drama. And after starring in The Master, Walk the Line, You Were Never Really Here, and Her, Joaquin Phoenix was the perfect casting choice.

Losing 52 pounds to play a depressed, bullied clown with pseudobulbar affect (a neurological laughing disorder), Phoenix manages to make us actually feel sorry for DC's biggest villain.

Tired of being mistreated, Arthur Fleck loses his marbles and becomes a homicidal, care-free clown who smashes all social rules. All of this unravels under a dingy, Fincher-like color palette.

11. American Beauty (1999)

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch

Drama (2h 2m)

8.3 on IMDb87% on RT

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 midlife crisis story, American Beauty centers on the sudden switch of Lester Burnham (played by 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.

This satirical black-comedy 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.

10. Falling Down (1993)

Directed by Joel Schumacher

Starring Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey

Action, Crime, Drama (1h 53m)

7.6 on IMDb75% on RT

Falling Down features a midlife 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 days where it feels like the world is ganging up on us, but we don't usually 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.

9. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Directed by John Cassavetes

Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper

Drama, Romance (2h 35m)

8.1 on IMDb91% on RT

A Woman Under the Influence was one of the first 50 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 A Woman Under the Influence, a fascinating drama that features 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 (played by Peter Falk).

8. Carrie (1976)

Directed by Brian De Palma

Starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving

Horror, Mystery (1h 38m)

7.4 on IMDb93% on RT

Carrie was one of the best horror films to come out of the 1970s, a film buff classic that still hasn't been 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 Carrie, 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 on fire—with everyone in it. She then goes home and casually takes a bath before crucifying her mother. Literally.

7. Surge (2020)

Directed by Aneil Karia

Starring Ben Whishaw, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder

Thriller (1h 45m)

6.1 on IMDb79% on RT

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 in 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 later. His rampage through the streets is both distressing and exhilarating to witness.

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.

6. Take Shelter (2011)

Directed by Jeff Nichols

Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham

Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi (2h)

7.3 on IMDb92% on RT

Jeff Nichols peels away the melodrama, horror, fantasy, and psychedelia found in some of our other picks to deliver a stripped-back character study in Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon.

Curtis LaForche doesn't realize he's having a breakdown for the first half of the film; he just thinks he's having bad nightmares. But when he starts to imagine a storm brewing, a quiet niggling sensation tells Curtis that the apocalypse is coming...

Is it really a sixth sense? Or the same schizophrenia that plagued his mother? Curtis puts his work and home life on the line for refusing to believe it's psychosis, and you'll be sure to find Shannon's community gathering breakdown scene in most "best acting" compilations!

5. Shutter Island (2010)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Emily Mortimer, Mark Ruffalo

Mystery, Thriller (2h 18m)

8.2 on IMDb69% on RT

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 (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) doesn't have your usual stress-induced breakdown. 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.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall

Drama, Mystery, War (2h 27m)

8.4 on IMDb98% on RT

Apocalypse Now is one of the most heralded war films in history. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (played by 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 (played by 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 (Sheen was actually drunk at the time), 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.

3. The Aviator (2004)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale

Biography, Drama (2h 50m)

7.5 on IMDb86% on RT

Leonardo DiCaprio's mental breakdown in The Aviator spawns from a real illness: 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 bipack color palette to match what would have been available on film during the era.

While his OCD erodes 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.

2. The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd

Drama, Horror (2h 26m)

8.4 on IMDb82% on RT

Stephen King—author of the original novel—is just about the only person to hate Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. After all, it's a heralded cult classic with hardcore fans, and it contains one of the most famous lines in cinema history: "Here's Johnny!"

Weirdly, Johnny isn't even the name of the one who says it. It's a reference to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, improvised by Jack Nicholson in his starring role as Jack Torrance.

Jack begins The Shining as an everyday guy with a wife and kids. Yet, when they move to an isolated hotel for his job, Jack starts to lose his sanity, haunted by ghosts and the tragic memories hidden inside the hotel walls.

There's a lot of supernatural and psychological layers happening in The Shining, not just for Jack but also his telepathic son (who got his own spin-off in 2019 called Doctor Sleep).

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd

Crime, Drama (1h 54m)

8.2 on IMDb96% on RT

"You talkin' to me?" That's Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver as Travis Bickle, the role that launched him to fame.

Before Leonardo DiCaprio came along, Robert De Niro was Martin Scorsese's number one collaborator, having worked together on nine brilliant films over the past 50 years.

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 where he works as a New York cabbie. After an existential crisis, he starts stalking a woman, working out, and plotting to assassinate a local presidential candidate.

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