To get on this list the protagonist’s madness is what drives the story. Maybe they’re trying to keep a grip on the reality around them. Maybe not. In each of the movies on the list below, the main character is adrift in sea of imagination, gone wrong.
However, context is the key to this premise. Therefore, if most everybody in the story is just as strange, which character is the one that’s off-kilter? The same goes for a plot that depicts a world of pretend. If the customary norms simply aren’t present, then the protagonist isn't disconnected from the reality of his or her peers.
Example: David Lynch‘s brilliant surreal joke of a film, “Eraserhead” (1977), doesn’t qualify. In the dark realm Lynch thrusts at the viewer, Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance) doesn't appear to be any more detached from everyday life on Earth than the rest of the film's characters. Although the viewer is told that “in heaven everything is fine,” it's plain to see "Eraserhead" isn't set in heaven, either ... but I digress.
The same everybody-is-crazy reason keeps Werner Herzog’s “Heart of Glass” (1976) from being considered for the list. Accordingly, since it's tricky to find anything like a sane world in the midst of a shooting war, moving pictures set in that brand of bloody madness have been excluded this time.
In alphabetical order here are my five favorite films with crazy protagonists:
- "Network" (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste and irresponsible broadcasting is anticipated with chilling accuracy. This is the flick that gave us the line, “I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Both Finch and Dunaway won Oscars.
- "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed By Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (pictured above), Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: When a shy manicurist is left alone in her flat she begins to wallow in paranoia. With her sister away on vacation the beautiful young woman descends into madness. Did I mention she’s got a dead rabbit in her purse? Could she be dangerous? You won’t forget this one.
- “Sling Blade” (1996): Color. 135 minutes. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter. Note: Thornton wrote the play. The fey but lovable character he invented/plays is Karl Childers. In “The Idiot” Dostoyevsky’s character Myshkin can only tell the truth; so he’s seen as crazy. In this very unusual movie honest and gentle Karl wouldn’t kill anyone without a good reason. He told them so when was discharged from the hospital.
- "Taxi Driver" (1976): Color. 113 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert DeNiro (pictured right), Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks. Note: Travis Bickle is an ignored, alienated veteran. We stare in the mirror with Travis the insomniac as he points his gun asking, “You talking to me?” We ride with him in his cab, as he steers toward becoming a protector of innocence and a vengeful assassin. This neo noir classic is still as eye-popping and haunting as it was 41 years ago.
- "Wise Blood" (1979): Color. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, John Huston, Amy Wright, Dan Shor. Note: This is a deft adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor story about a self-styled street preacher’s twisted efforts to fit into a low-road world of shadows and scams. But he’s an atheist of a sort. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel a little bit guilty for laughing, but you can’t help it.
To close, here's the last title I had to cut from the list to get it down to five: "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) by Herzog.