Existentialist Movies

Existentialism is not about 'getting it'. It's about not getting it, and honestly facing the the consequences and inadequacies that follow.

Here's a list of movies that deal with existentialist issues.

The Lobster

Beautifully divided into two, this movie sees David subject to an absurd framework that aims to consciously couple people. Upon breaking the chains and throwing his lot in with a group of rebels who fight against the whole notion of emotional partners, he finds himself subject to another framework that is just as absurd as the one he escaped.
The Lobster dismantles the artifice of love and asks the question that is painful to hear: what is the difference between the limitations of a society (like law) and the limitations that the individual places on themselves (like love)?
There is also the time honoured analogy between hunting and love and sex (see The Taming of the Shrew or any number of serial killer movies) where we see the futility that we can only have the things that we destroy, which is not having at all. In fact, it is the act of having that is the destroyer.

Local Hero

This movie might seem a tad light on existentialism and heavy on light entertainment, but it is a study in alienation and misapprehension. Mac, an oil executive from Texas, is sent to a wee town in Scotland in order to convince the locals to sell the town in its entirety to make way for a new refinery.
And it is here that the Mac's isolation becomes apparent. He is clueless that the town is more than willing to sell up, but want to exploit him by feigning idyllic life styles (don't we all?) in order to increase the value of their property. When the film closes we see Mac back in Texas reaching out via a phone call to a reality that never existed, having missed his chance at redemption by not embracing and perhaps actualising that very reality.


The harrowing beauty of being completely helpless in the face of death is centre stage in this Spanish film. Uxbal, the protagonist, lives a volatile life in Barcelona. He is diagnosed with cancer, has care of two young children, has a fractured relationship with an unsteady ex, and he puts his foot wrong at every turn and harms everyone around him with desperately good intentions.

Even the film's name, a mispelt beautiful, is the reflection of his attempt to bring stability and care into the rocky world that his children inhabit.
Uxbal, however, for all of his failures, is a hero. He is a knight of faith. He recognises the necessity of choice, of commitment, and acts in accordance, for better or worse.
This remarkable piece is choc full of fantastic existential quips, visuals, and narratives. Not the least of the absurd death of Uxbal's father who fled Spain to avoid the death penalty but died two weeks later in Mexico, of pneumonia.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is an epic attempt to contextualise the ephemeral stuff that is humankind. A large portion of the film is given over to unanswered questions, to the rocks and explosions and black absences that are our parents, to the silences that fall in between people. 
The film offers no solutions and never presumes to quench angst, but softly, boldly puts the archetypal choices before us. 
Mother, father; always you wrestle inside me, always you will.
What I want to do, I can't do. I do what I hate.
Sadly missing from many art forms these days, catharsis is the by product of this movie. You are left not with a false notion of hope, but you are cleansed and given faith that as temporal as everything is, the whole shebang is still somehow significant, somehow glowing in beauty.


Frank follows the hapless Jon as he tries to realise his musical creativity. He is overshadowed by the eccentric, enigmatic, and infinitely talented Frank, who happens to have a huge Mardi Gras head.
The movie is a fine depiction of the duality that we inhabit: our masked presentation to the world, our essence, and the 'real' self within.  Jon, not happy with his own insufficiencies eventually seeks to depose Frank by revealing the head within the head. 
Of course this is a morality tale of the everyday happenings where people define others through gaze and opinion. Hell really is other people.
Jon commits the error of unmasking, just as we commit the errors of  over analysis, of taking things apart that we will never be able to put back together. Things, humans.

The Matrix

This would have to be the most famous, and perhaps most obvious, of the existentialist movies listed here. It's dripping with prototypical existentialist theory: the choice between choosing and not choosing, the barren preference for knowing over ignoring, the split between the real and the really real, the confirmation of the individual subject as the main actor in the individual's life, the empowerment of faith.
There is much to read about this movie online already, so I won't add too much more. It is just that no list would have been complete without it.


  1. I heart Huckabees, Stranger Than Fiction are also good titles

  2. First, some predictable/well-known choices : Groundhog Day, The Truman Show, Peaceful Warrior, The Fountain... Then less predictable choices : Gattaca, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Him, Her), Vanilla Sky, The Adjustment Bureau

    1. Thanks AlphaTest,
      I think I have some watching to do. I'll create a 2nd list thereafter.


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