When is it Acceptable for a Film to Make You Feel Uncomfortable?


Craig Zobel’s brilliant film, Compliance, became available on DVD this week. The film earned a harsh reaction from portions of the audience during its theater run. Occasional viewers were unable to suspend their disbelief over a story that is, in fact, true. Many audience members were so repulsed that they actually walked out. It’s clear to see that this film makes viewers feel uncomfortable, like thousands of films before it. There’s obviously a line that filmmakers toe when they attempt to elicit this response amongst audiences. Where is that line?

By attending a film, audiences enter into an immersive experience. Film acts upon the conscious mind in far more direct ways than any other art form. The theater is dark, all attention is paid to the screen, and filmmakers employ dialogue, visuals, music and on-camera sound, and thousands of other tricks to make their vision translate to the audience. And the audience, in turn, is sucked into that world, easily prodded along the path that the filmmaker chooses. Buy the ticket, take the ride. It’s the unspoken contract that filmmakers and filmgoers honor between one another.

Dreama Walker stars as Becky in "Compliance."

A character getting sexually assaulted in the name of what’s presumed to be the law is certainly one way to make audiences uncomfortable.

This process gives the filmmaker a lot of power to shape the audience’s experiences. And, in the case of films like Compliance, that power may be used to make audiences feel extremely uncomfortable. This reaction can be elicited through a variety of means. Immoral behavior, violence, gore, and gross-out humor all come to mind. In the case of dirty genius bastards like Alfred Hitchcock, it’s a matter of using subtle queues to elicit a feeling of unease, usually leading up to a knockout punch that’s more direct.

When, exactly, is it ok for a filmmaker to wield this power? A few obvious answers come to mind. First, if a filmmaker has a broader statement to make, it’s perfectly acceptable to make an audience squirm emotionally. Continuing with our example du jour, Compliance, it was part of a broader statement about just how far people are willing to go if they trust another person as an authority figure. It was the classic Milgram experiment.

Another case where a filmmaker is justified in making an audience feel uncomfortable is when it involves artistic vision. Requiem for a Dream (2000) is an extraordinarily uncomfortable film to watch. But it’s part of Aronofsky’s larger vision, a totality of drug-related despair made more real by the shaky cam, the snorricam, and several other techniques.


Proper execution of artistic vision justifies horrifying events that elicit unease

The art of making an audience feel uncomfortable starts to tread on thin ice when it’s used to set up horror, although this can be a justifiable excuse. The problem is that audiences are prepared for it when watching a horror film. They know going in that there’s a high likelihood that they’ll see or hear something that will make them feel uneasy. This, of course, dampens the feeling of unease, and the filmmaker doesn’t acquire the intended response. And in the end, the filmmaker did something seemingly edgy that comes off as showy or gratuitous.

The real thin line is in the execution. Any filmmaker can put shocking content in their film in the interest of eliciting unease. But it’s completely ineffective, and moot, if it’s executed clumsily. If there’s not a proper set-up with character development, then audiences have little reason to care about what’s happening on the screen, no matter how shocking. They won’t be able to inculcate the behavior. The same goes for poor acting, awkward foley cues, disruptive plot sequences, and unbelievability. No matter the filmmakers artistic vision or grand statement, it’s all meaningless if the audience is taken out of the experience by poor filmmaking. Ultimately, when an audience reacts negatively to uneasy feelings brewed in a theater, they’re saying, “I can’t relate to this at all.”

What do you think? When does a filmmaker cross the line?


Filed under Movies

27 responses to “When is it Acceptable for a Film to Make You Feel Uncomfortable?

  1. That’s a great question. There’s definitely a line that can be crossed but in my opinion most filmmakers don’t cross it. The one time that I ever felt like the filmmakers went too far was in a found footage film from the 70’s called Cannibal Holocaust. If you’ve ever seen it you will know exactly what I’m talking about. It was just too much and hard to watch.

    • Bingo. Cannibal Holocaust was one of the first films I saw that really, genuinely repulsed me to my core. And I’m not easy to repulse that way.

      And you know… speaking only for myself, I would’ve forgiven it if it was part of some larger, profound statement. But it wasn’t, at all.

  2. Tarantino often crosses it with gratuitous violence that’s not needed to tell his story – and I say that as a fan of his work in general.

    • The guy who met Kevin Meany

      Strangely enough, the most uncomfortable QT scene for me was in Inglorious Basterds when the “Jew Hunter” interrogated the farmer who was hiding a family. The violence, itself, didn’t make me feel that uncomfortable.

    • Interesting. Which scenes would you say crossed the line?

      It’s not a loaded question- I won’t tell you you’re wrong. Mostly I’m curious.

  3. I think there is a line but a director has to go quite a way to cross it. I imagine most people know to a degree what they’re getting with a film before they watch it so I don’t it’s too often people will complain of it crossing the line. And everybody’s line is in a different place. Some may think that any kind of sexual assault is crossing a line, whereas others may think it’s fine in context.
    Personally, i’ve not seen anything that I think crosses the line, although no doubt there are films out there that would cross my personal line. The thought of something like The Human Centipede is very close to my line, I can’t think of a reason for it existing, although I haven’t seen it to properly pass comment.

    • Purely as a horror film, I think Human Centipede gets a bit of a bad rep. There are more shocking films out there, by quite a bit. And while it DOES rely on the shocking concept to lure you in, once you’re “in” as a viewer, it does a decent job of executing a horror screenplay. Not to say that you should watch it- if you’re worried about it, then duck out. But it’s not as bad as you might imagine, I guess.

      There’s really not much that’s pushed me beyond my limits, where- if I was watching in a theater, I would’ve walked out. Salo is one. Cannibal Holocaust is another. That might be it.

      • I think I would always give a film a go; like i say, I haven’t seen Human Centipede but the premise is certainly close to the line. I would definitely give it a watch though. I’ve definitely not seen anything in the cinema as of yet I would walk out of, but Cannibal Holocaust just sounds horrendous. That is one title that doesn’t cook up any nice thoughts.

        • Everything about it is rotten. And I don’t say that kind of thing often about a film because I’d prefer to find the redeeming qualities. There’s pretty much none in Cannibal Holocaust.

  4. That’s a really good question, and a really hard one to answer. I think the line differs for everyone. My line, I guess would be at sexual assault. I hate watching it in movies and to this day the only film I could fully justify it in is American History X. So for me, a film like I Spit on Your Grave crosses the line. Ryan brought up a good point about Cannibal Holocaust though, That definitely crosses a line as well – they actually killed animals during the making of it.

    • Cannibal Holocaust is, frankly, an abomination. As a wise woman once said, “I’m not saying these films shouldn’t be made, because OMG censorship” (see Wednesday’s comment)… But there’s zero artistic merit to it. Everything about it is jacked up. The animal murder was wrong on very deep levels, but the rape scenes in that movie killed me. Just killed me. And there wasn’t a single reason for it. Oh sure, the filmmaker was trying to make some grand statement about the noble savage and blah blah blah… but that statement just as easily could’ve been made without the extremity. And the whole thing was handled so clumsily. It’s a horrible film, disguised as “shocking, thought-provoking content”. They can call it that, but it’s not that by a longshot.

  5. I agree on the sexual violence issue. I once quit a message board because of a several pages’ long discussion about how they thought they’d be shocked by the rape scene in Irreversible, but it “wasn’t that bad.” Not one person in the discussion considered that film as anything other than extreme entertainment, and a diversion that wasn’t extreme enough at that. And as for I Spit on Your Grave, people want to argue about how that is a feminist film, rather than an excuse to sit and watch a violent rape while eating popcorn. *shudder* I’m not saying these films shouldn’t be made, because OMG censorship, but I question anyone’s decision to repeatedly watch them, and I certainly wouldn’t date or be close friends with someone who included Irreversible, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust, and A Serbian Film among their all-time faves.

    • I don’t mean to sound like a snooty jackass, but I can only imagine the ridiculousness of an internet conversation about sexual assault in movies. That precept alone is ripe for some horrible and horribly misguided comments. Maybe I’m underestimating the participants, but “message board” plus “rape scene” is a recipe for disaster.

      I’ll admit, I “liked” Irreversible- meaning, I thought it was very well-made. But you’ve really hit on something. I can’t imagine watching it repeatedly or encouraging anyone to watch it unless they explicitly said “I like Gaspar Noé’s other films but haven’t seen Irreversible”.

      I’m going to comment on Cannibal Holocaust here in a sec (in another comment), because it’s been brought up a few times now.

      • I don’t know how to express the odd comments I read about Irreversible. This is what was disturbing: it’s like it wasn’t idiots having your general internet conversation about “no meaning yes” and stupid rape apologist crap, it was that they saw it as just another “horror” movie, although one that wasn’t shocking (and therefore entertaining) enough. Sexual assault and its treatment in movies wasn’t brought up.

        • Blech.

          I have to admit, rape is a real hot button for me. There are a lot of hot button things I can deal with, no matter how bad they are. But sexual assault really bothers me. I can’t imagine seeing any form of it on screen and thinking “It’s not shocking enough. It needs to be more shocking.”

    • I actually stopped posting on IMDb for a long time because of topics like that. They were comparing rape scenes and saying The Last House on the Left, for example, wasn’t that bad. Are you kidding? I avoid movies if I know there is going to be a graphic rape scene in them. Seriously – I’ve never seen Irreversible because I know I can’t sit through 9 minutes of that. I already had to sit through 30 seconds of it while watching a documentary on sex in independent films and that was enough.

  6. Phil

    Great question. It depends on the person, and the lines are constantly moving. I’m not a fan of movies like Human Centipede where it feels like the reason to make the film was to shock people. Lena Dunham’s show, Girls, is great at showing taboo subjects which I’ve never seen addressed before. I keep thinking that it couldn’t be done if Dunham wasn’t writing the script for herself.

    • I haven’t seen Girls, but the way you describe it raises a question about another level where unease can be acceptable. Namely, when it’s very personal for the creator. Although I guess that comes back to finding a way to make the audience “feel it”.

  7. I’m not sure if I’m the best person to make an objective observation. I regularly go to the spot where Divine ate dog poopy in “Pink Flamingos” and still laugh at the outrageous hilarity of a 300 pound man dressed as a woman dropping to a city sidewalk to scoop fresh dog poop into his mouth for the purpose of someone’s entertainment.

  8. aleksa

    You can’t pick just one line, because every person’s tolerance level is so different, and every person has that one hot button that for one reason or another, they just don’t want pushed. Someone mentioned “Irreversible”, which is probably a great example of a film where the discomfort level is purposely pushed. Personally I’ve chosen not to watch the film at all because I don’t, personally, think I could sit through the rape scene.

    The only film I’ve ever turned off due to not being able to handle the subject matter was “Johnny Got His Gun”. I found what was happening to the character so upsetting and disturbing that I had to turn it off at my first sitting, and didn’t finally see the ending until close to twenty years after I’d originally tried to watch the film.

    • That’s interesting, because I LOVE that movie (Johnny Got His Gun). But it’s definitely tough to watch. Speaking only for myself, that’s a case where the filmmaker really did it right. You really inculcate how horrible it is for “Johnny”.

      • aleksa

        It was a fantastic movie; very well written. It’s actually a testament to the film to say that it made me that uncomfortable.

  9. Pingback: The Gore Report – The Human Centipede 3, Evil Dead, The Descent and More | French Toast Sunday

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