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10 Most Disturbing Movie Performances of All Time

May 2, 2017
8 min read

It wouldn’t be really difficult for any hardcore cinephile out there to recall instances when actors have given you sleepless nights. In fact that has always been one of the most exciting aspects of being a cinephile. Actors are often pushed to their vulnerable extremes with scripts that demand intense emotional and psychological outpouring. And cinema has given birth to countless great actors, all of who have immensely succeeded in frightening and disturbing viewers with performances that have snatched places in the history books of cinema. And we, at The Cinemaholic, realize that it’s time we honor some of the greatest acting performances in cinema that continue to frighten, terrify and disturb audiences. Here is the list of top disturbing movie performances of all time.

10. Daniel Day Lewis, ‘There Will Be Blood’

The reason why Daniel Day Lewis’s towering performance in this Paul Thomas Anderson epic is ranked so low is because Daniel Plainview is a performance with infinite layers of depth that isn’t solely disturbing but brilliantly manages to evoke a plethora of emotions ranging from empathy and rage to fear and contempt. At the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day Lewis breathes life into a character whose emotions are ambiguous and ambitions are monstrous. The performance is a pure work of art; one that claws into you in all its rawness and menacing intensity that emanates in every frame of his towering presence.

 9. Robert De Niro, ‘Taxi Driver’

Teetering on the edges of emotional meltdown and paranoia, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s iconic ‘Taxi Driver’ is the silent roar of a generation that witnessed and endured the madness, the chaos and been through hell in the jungles of Vietnam. Bickle is a lonely Vietnam veteran who works as a taxi driver in New York city as he drives through the filth and scum of the streets that tears his soul apart. In a staggering display of manic acting abilities imbued with absolute control and subtlety, Robert De Niro portrays Bickle’s descent into madness as we see him being pulled by the extremities of human darkness. His inability and desperation to come in contact with people and the perpetual struggle to fit in a bizarre, freakish world ridden with murders and sleaze is a deeply disturbing dark portrait of a human soul.

8. Malcolm McDowell, ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Criteria for judging performances in a Stanley Kubrick film are starkly different from the others. Performances in his films are often over-the-top, bizarre and detached from a sense of reality that viewers are so accustomed with. Malcolm McDowell’s delectably wicked turn as Alex DeLarge is, in many ways, the quintessential Stanley Kubrick movie performance. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ explores Kubrick’s most beloved themes of nihilism and delves deep into the psychology of a future that blatantly revels in violence and mayhem. Malcolm McDowell throws himself on to Alex, unhinged and uninhibited, in a performance that relentless sways on morality, disturbing and frightening the viewers with Kubrick fusing his twisted sense of humor onto the character that heightens its existing madness.

7. Christian Bale, ‘American Psycho’

A highly controversial film that polarized critics due to its subject matter and depiction of graphic violence, ‘American Psycho’ features a staggering performance from a 26 year old Christian Bale who, with an awe-inspiring exuberance and hunger, leaps into the bizarre, demented psyche of Patrick Bateman. Now regarded as one of the most iconic performances of the 21st century, Christian Bale is absolutely terrific and commands complete control over the film as a highly successful investment banker with a fetish for violence and murders. His arresting looks coupled with his exceptional ability to make the character look utterly despicable, painting the intricate facets of a deeply troubled character turn this into one of the wildest and most disturbing performances of all time.

6. Dennis Hopper, ‘Blue Velvet’

One of my favorites on the list, Dennis Hopper’s turn as Frank Booth, a psychopathic pimp and a drug dealer with sadomasochistic fantasies in David Lynch’s 1986 cult classic mystery thriller , ‘Blue Velvet’, is undoubtedly one of the most frightening and horrifying performances cinema has ever witnessed. Hopper doesn’t shy away for a moment and pounces on the role, snatching every frame with his frighteningly charismatic persona that still sends shivers down our spines. The brilliance of his performance lies in the fact that despite apparently lacking any sort of restraint or control, Frank Booth is a performance that has managed to stand the test of time and still feels unimaginably creepy.

5. Kevin Spacey, ‘Se7en’

The now famous performance of Kevin Spacey in the chilling finale of ‘Se7en’ was kept as a secret by director David Fincher in order to avert the audiences from guessing the killer’s identity. The result was a shockingly disturbing performance that played out brilliantly with the overall suspenseful setting and atmosphere of the film. Spacey very nearly steals the show towards the end with his frighteningly calm demeanor and a masterfully toned down dialogue delivery that creeps into your skin, consuming you in all the evilness and diabolic charisma that he so beautifully embodies.

4. Jack Nicholson, ‘The Shining’

Jack Nicholson’s performance in ‘The Shining’ was gunned down by critics as brash, scenery chewing and blatantly over the top. And it really is every bit over the top. But dismissing the brilliance of his performance would be missing the point. ‘The Shining’ tells the story of Jack Torrance who arrive at a chilling, mysterious hotel with his family to be interviewed for the position of winter caretaker. Jack slowly loses control of his mind as he sinks deep into the horrifying depths of unimaginable darkness. And Jack Nicholson personifies madness unlike anything ever in cinema. Stanley Kubrick brilliantly makes use of Nicholson’s flamboyant persona while Nicholson pushes himself to his vulnerable extremes, giving us, film connoisseurs, a memorable performance that continues to frighten and disturb in a way that could never be replicated.

3. Javier Bardem, ‘No Country for Old Men’

What makes Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh more frightening than most villains is his complete lack of emotions. Chigurh hardly ever speaks and it feels unreal to imagine someone as cold and brutal as Chigurh could walk the Earth. Bardem’s imposing figure, grave voice and exceptional acting skills turn this into one of the most disturbing cinematic performances ever put on-screen. With cold smiles, he freezes your nerves and his enigmatic quality sketches the thematic layers of the film. His actions seem to suggest that he has probably no connection with the human world and emotions and kills people with absolute joy and pleasure. And Javier Bardem embodies these characteristics so perfectly that it feels like he was born to play Chigurh.

2. Isabelle Huppert, ‘The Piano Teacher’

Bizarre, penetrating, heartbreaking, disturbing. Hardly ever do we get to see a performance that evokes such a sweeping range of emotions, shaking us to the core. In this Michael Haneke classic, Isabelle Huppert plays a piano teacher with repressed sexual desires and masochistic fantasies. Right from the moment she appears on screen, Huppert is dynamic and exudes a seductively intimidating presence as her eyes penetrate us with an irresistible force of throbbing desires and spurned emotions and needs. The film is replete with moments disturbing in unspeakable ways but at its core ‘The Piano Teacher’ is a harrowing character study of a woman underneath her social facade, whose tragic existence is perennially ignored by an oppressive mother and a cold society.

1. Anthony Hopkins, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’

Nothing remains to be talked about this iconic performance that has incredibly stood the test of time. Anthony Hopkins’ nerve-racking portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is fascinating, seductive and frightening beyond words. Hopkins’ dynamic eyes subtly channelize emotions of anger, madness and inner sadism and despite being on screen for just under 16 minutes, he designs and builds the aura of a film that is every bit as iconic as the performance. A beautifully written character, Hannibal Lecter is a former psychiatrist whose creepy fetish for the human flesh has turned him into the city’s deadliest cannibalistic serial killer. Hopkins freezes your nerves and freaks you out with Lecter’s bizarre fantasies and virtually controls your emotions. It is quite simply the most disturbing movie performance ever; one that creeps into your mind, numbing your senses and terrifying you in unspeakable ways.

Read More: Best Anthony Hopkins Movies

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