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5 Movies Which Explore Psychology in Unique Ways

Sometimes we want a movie that's more than background noise. We want to watch something that will keep us gripped, something cerebral that has our mind in knots as we figure out that line between fact and fiction for a character, learn to empathize with a character baring all of their vulnerabilities or learn about manifestations of different mental disorders. These five movies will not disappoint and they all deserve the critical acclaim they have received. Read below and watch to discover the sublime acting within these cerebral films.

5) A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Directed By: Ron Howard

Topics Explored: Schizophrenia, social psychology, behavioral economics, game theory

Based on the real-life of the brilliant mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and Abel Prize winner, this biopic shows John’s journey with schizophrenia, as he embarks on his mathematical career. Whilst not entirely accurate as a biography, the movie has been critically praised and shows many elements of John’s schizophrenia unraveling his life. It explores the burden it places on his wife, blurs the lines of reality and hallucination for the viewer and John alike, as we realize he is having paranoid visual hallucinations and the type of treatment that would have been used in the 1950s and 1960s.

Nash served humanity hugely with his contributions to game theory and differential geometry, whilst his mind was betraying him. We see his torturous struggle impact him in many ways, and can’t help but empathize. This movie will have you gripped from start to finish.

4) Good Will Hunting (1997)

Directed By: Gus Van Sant

Topics Explored: Psychological treatments, developmental psychology

We see Matt Damon play a mathematically gifted man, Will Hunting, who works at MIT, as a janitor. Will’s genius-level IQ is discovered by a professor who wants to help him reach his full potential. Whilst he is able to solve complex equations with ease, his headstrong nature and frequent run-ins with the law does not serve him as well in the lessons of life. A psychology professor, played by the iconic Robin Williams, who provides him with therapy is perhaps the only man to be able to reach him.

We see the vulnerability of Will in these therapy sessions as the therapist-client dynamic is intimately explored. Significantly, for a Hollywood movie, the therapeutic scenes maintain a level of grit and realism to them. The characters both show depth and it doesn’t feel like things will be neatly resolved in 90 minutes, but that this is an ongoing process in a complex world.

3) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Directed By: Miloš Forman

Topics Explored: Psychological treatments, mood disorders, personality disorders

This classic drama is based on the classic novel of the same name. It is considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made, so even if psychology isn’t you’re thing, you’ll still want to check it out for the phenomenal acting, directing, and cultural significance. A criminal pleads insanity to escape labor duties in prison and ends up in a 1960’s mental health hospital. In this institution, we see a clash of cultures representative of American society at the time.

The eponymous character of Randell, played by Jack Nicholson, rebels against the oppressive nurse figure, as they engage in a battle of power and perspectives. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest provides an insight into the flawed psychiatric system of the 1960s, whilst have you laughing with the residents, in this noteworthy comedy.

2) Rain Man (1988)

Directed By: Barry Levinson

Topics Explored: Autism spectrum disorders, family dynamics

Whilst this movie plays on some stereotypes of people with autism, it was also one of the first to actually bring any kind of awareness to the neurodevelopmental disorder. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman play brothers who had no idea the other existed; one is a wheeler-dealer type and the other, an autistic savant. They get to know each other after the father’s demise on a cross country road trip.

This was a project Cruise and Hoffman had long been attempting to bring to fruition, and their efforts garnered four Oscars and was one of the highest-grossing movies in 1988. Hoffman excels as he depicts the frustration of not being able to read emotions, of his distress when things occur outside of his strict routine, and his savant-like memory recall abilities. Although public understanding of autism has greatly improved since the making of this film, as the majority of people do not have these abilities, this will always be a pioneering film on the subject.

1) 12 Angry Men (1957)

Directed By: Sidney Lumet

Topics Explored: Social Psychology, conformity, memory, prejudices

Don’t let the fact that this movie is older than your mama put you off this beautiful, simple drama. It is shot almost entirely in one room and is the second-best courtroom movie drama ever (second only to To Kill a Mockingbird). 12 jurors must decide the fate of one man being convicted of premeditated murder. Throughout this grueling process, just one man believes there is reasonable doubt in this case.

The jurors' prejudices, preconceptions, and memory are tested. We are witness to exciting group dynamics and what the power of one voice showing dissent can do to a whole group initially all conforming to the same opinion. If you didn’t have to watch or read this in high school, stream it now. There is a reason why this movie has been subject to endless parodies across shows, so do yourself a favor and watch the original.

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