Ten Great Psychological Movies - The Part of Tens

Psychology For Dummies - Adam Cash 2013

Ten Great Psychological Movies
The Part of Tens

In This Chapter

Image Flying over the cuckoo’s nest

Image Meeting ordinary people

Image Fearing the primal urge

So what makes a good psychological movie? The definition of a psychological movie is a film that directly addresses a psychological topic or mental disorder and/or utilizes psychological concepts or a psychological theme as part of the plot.

My ratings of the movies covered here are based on a five-cigar rating system. Sigmund Freud was quite the cigar aficionado, and receiving five cigars would have sounded great to him. For our purposes, five cigars is a great film, and one cigar is a bad psychological film. Each film can earn one cigar for each of the following criteria:

Image Accurate depiction of a mental disorder and accurate portrayal of a person suffering from a mental disorder, including the subjective experience

Image Accurate depiction of the structure, process, and function of mental health treatment including psychotherapy and medication

Image Interesting and thought-provoking presentation of psychological science, research, or theory

Image Use of psychological principles and knowledge to anticipate, predict, and get inside the mind of the characters in the film necessary on the part of the viewer

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released in 1975 and based on Ken Kesey’s book of the same name. The film, directed by Milos Forman, stars Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy, a man who is involuntary committed to a mental hospital.

The thing that makes this movie a real contender for the Golden Cigar is the question of whether Nicholson’s character is really mentally ill. The film is a commentary on the mental health system during the time period within which the movie is set and how the system was used as a means of social control. Is Nicholson’s character mentally ill, or is he just a pain in the neck who has a problem with authority? There’s no doubt that Jack stands out and bucks the system every chance he gets, but does that make him sick? Maybe he just has a real zest for life.

For the acting, social commentary, and existential dilemma, I give this film five cigars! Definitely check this one out, and for more discussion of the issues brought up by this film check out Chapter 3’s sections on medication and Chapter 13 on abnormal psychology.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange, based on the book by Anthony Burgess and directed by Stanley Kubrick, was made in 1971 and stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, a young troublemaker and delinquent. McDowell and his gang of three friends engage in various crimes and shenanigans, such as fighting, vandalism, skipping school, and the like. One night, they steal a car and go for a joy ride. They commit a horrific home invasion, raping a woman and brutally beating her husband. McDowell gets caught.

This is where the psychologically interesting part begins. McDowell is put through a rigorous behavior modification program that utilizes a technique called aversion training. After learning takes place, every time McDowell’s character is exposed to violence, he becomes violently ill. Therefore, he is compelled to avoid engaging in violence in order to avoid getting sick.

The film seems to pose a number of questions: Do we really want to resort to such tactics in reforming our criminals? Are we doing more harm than good? Is the level of violence in a society a function of a collective aversion to it or more a matter of the strong preying on the weak?

For the macabre nature of the film and its use of behaviorism, not to mention the social commentary on violence in society, I give this film five cigars! For more on behavior therapy check out Chapter 16.

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys, directed by Terry Gilliam (1995) and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which Bruce is sent back in time to stop whomever spread a virus that destroyed the world. The psychological crux of 12 Monkeys is the question, “What is real?” How do we know if someone is really delusional or not? How can we prove that God really does speak to some people? Willis and Stowe develop what looks like a mental disorder known as folie à deux, a shared fantasy or delusion by two or more people.

The acting in 12 Monkeys is great. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of a person suffering from schizophrenia (check out Chapter 13) is pretty good. The questioning of reality is a complicated topic, but 12 Monkeys pulls it off. Five cigars!

Ordinary People

Ordinary People (1980), directed by Robert Redford and starring Timothy Hutton, Jud Hirsch, Donald Sutherland, and Mary Tyler Moore, is about a teenage boy recovering from depression and a suicide attempt following a boating accident that took his older brother’s life. This is an excellent story about how complex grief and depression can be and yet how much can be accomplished by taking things slowly and making them simple.

The acting is superb. The depiction of a mental disorder is excellent. Only one problem costs this movie a cigar. Psychiatrists rarely, if ever, do psychotherapy nowadays. Psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family counselors conduct most psychotherapy. Four cigars! For more about trauma check out Chapter 13.

Girl, Interrupted

In Girl, Interrupted, a 1999 film directed by James Mangold, Winona Ryder plays a depressed and suicidal young woman who’s admitted to a mental hospital. She’s reluctant about being there and resists many of the efforts by the staff to help her “get better.” The movie contrasts the characters’ lives and afflictions as a way to demonstrate that middle-class suburban angst is small potatoes when compared to other more serous illnesses. At the same time, the film doesn’t minimize Ryder’s difficulties, but instead it appears to place them in perspective. Developing a new perspective is a turning point for Ryder’s character; her life is simply being interrupted. She won’t let her life end in the institution due to a failure to deal with her problems.

The moral of the story is that Ryder’s character was fortunate to have made it out alive, merely taking a detour into mental illness instead of permanent residence. It’s a very personal story. It’s a story about hope and the harsh reality of some people’s lives (for more about life’s “issues” check out Chapter 17). Five cigars!

The Silence of the Lambs

This is the movie that made everyone want to go out, join the FBI, and become a profiler. Directed by Jonathan Demme, this 1991 film stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in a psychological thriller that gets you inside the mind of a serial killer. Foster’s character, Clarise Starling, is an FBI agent who must deal with a famous psychiatrist/serial killer named Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins. The movie centers on their interactions and the psychological games they play with each other in order to get what they both want. Hopkins plays doctor with Foster’s psyche, and Foster asks Hopkins to look inside and use his self-knowledge to help her catch a serial killer.

The movie’s strength is not so much in its portrayal of a mentally ill psychiatrist, but in its insight to how the human mind works and how we become who we are. The tragedy of Foster’s childhood makes being a profiler her destiny. The serial killer’s (Buffalo Bill) quest for transformation into his true self drives his horrendous murders. The real anomaly is Hopkins’s character. He seems to represent both the good and the bad aspects of the human psyche. He helps Foster, both as consultant and as healer, but he also demonstrates depravity and demonic insanity through acts of murder. It’s as if he is both the giver and the taker of life. His powerful knowledge of the human mind easily turns into a tool for murder.

Hannibal Lecter represents what a lot of us fear — that those we trust to help us can also hurt us. Five cigars! (For more discussion about psychopathic personality and forensic psychology, check out see the free online article "Applying Psychology for a Better World" at www.dummies.com/extras/psychology.)


Sally Field stars in this classic 1976 made-for-TV movie, directed by Daniel Petrie, about multiple personality disorder (MPD). Field, playing Sybil, is a reclusive young woman who appears to be shy and quiet, but under the surface a chaotic tangle of personalities swirls out of control. She ends up in the care of a doctor who begins to treat her for multiple personality disorder.

The scenes in which Field and her doctor are in therapy are very dramatic and disturbing. They’re intense! Sally Field’s performance is very powerful. It’s actually pretty hard to watch someone act so strangely. It gets a ten on the “Hair on the Back of My Neck Standing Up” scale. It gives me the willies! As Sybil switches back and forth between personalities, the therapist begins to gain some insight as to how Field’s character could have become so ill.

Field’s character was horribly sexually and physically abused as a child. The film presents the professionally popular idea that MPD is the result of the personality splitting off from itself in order to defend the core personality from the reality of the abuse. It does a good job of respecting this notion and stays a true course, not yielding to the temptation to get too “Hollywood.”

The strength of Sybil rests on three pillars: Sally Field’s acting, the emotional intensity of the therapy scenes, and the portrayal of the hypothesized cause of multiple personality disorder. Five cigars! To learn more about psychotherapy check out Chapter 15.


No list of great psychological movies would be complete without Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. Anthony Perkins stars as a depraved psychopath with a strange delusion that involves dressing up like his mother. Perkins’s character appears to suffer from a split personality in which part of his personality is his mother. How weird is that? The “psycho” in Psycho only kills one person in the entire movie, small potatoes by today’s standards, but Hitchcock’s use of suspense and surprise are superb.

Psycho introduced the American public to the idea of a psychopathic killer, a man with a warped mind. On the outside, Perkins’s character is meek and socially awkward, a boy in a man’s body. He enjoys the voyeuristic thrill of an occasional peep at his motel customers. The suggestion is that underneath that calm exterior is a deranged killer waiting for his opportunity. But the key psychological component in Psycho is Perkins’s twisted relationship with his mother. He is the quintessential “momma’s boy,” unable to go out into the world on his own and enjoy the pleasures that he fantasizes about. Freud would have been proud of this twisted version of Oedipus in which Perkins’s mother, rather than the father, is the castrating threat. Perkins’s rage appears to be the product of his failure to be the king of his own castle, so to speak.

Psycho is a classic. Don't bother with the remake with Vince Vaughn; go rent the original. Five cigars. (For more about psychopaths, check out the free online article "Applying Psychology for a Better World" at www.dummies.com/extras/psychology.)

The Matrix

The Matrix (1999), directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss is an apocalyptic film in which a “master computer” has taken over the world and the minds of all humans and created an alternative reality. Humans are kept alive in a farm of sorts, where the energy from human bodies keeps the technology powered.

The master computer has taken over the minds of all humans by linking them into a virtual reality matrix in order to sustain their minds and mental functioning after finding out that without the matrix-derived mass delusion the human body would die, thus eliminating its power source. However, a group of people have managed to “break free” from the matrix and “come back” to reality, waking up to a world in which most humans are fuel and the master computer hunts them down.

Are you surprised to see this movie on this list? Some critics and viewers consider The Matrix to be a good “action” film, and some say it is quite mediocre. But, this movie explores the concepts of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine intelligence, consciousness, and human-machine/human-technology relationships. The matrix itself is suggestive of the Internet and how it is often mistaken for reality. Are people becoming disembodied minds in this Internet age? Is this a form of mental slavery in which human minds and desires are subject to manipulation by more powerful, massive, and complex intelligences such as corporate marketers and spin masters?

The Matrix is thought-provoking and taps into some very contemporary and complex areas of psychological study and research. Five cigars! (For more about consciousness check out Chapter 4 and for more about technology, check out the free online article "www.Psychology" at www.dummies.com/extras/psychology.)

The Boost

The Boost (1988), directed by Harold Becker, is a movie about addiction. James Woods stars as a typical guy with a wife and a career whose recreational drug use spirals out of control, tearing his life apart. Woods’s acting is absolutely incredible. His portrayal of addiction as a cunning, baffling, bewildering, and powerful disorder is spot on! This is not a “pretty” movie and it makes no bones about the darkness of addiction. Powerful movie. Addiction is not glamorous. Five cigars.