20 Most Anxiety-Inducing Movies: Cinema has the power to move you. While some films can fill you with a breath of rain-washed garden air, others can make you feel as if you have been dragged through the dirt. Similarly, some films can make you feel extremely stressed while you are watching them, almost as if you are a part of the film’s racy premise. This can give rise to feelings of anxiety in any individual.
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion that leads to feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes in an individual. It is important to mention here that different kinds of stressors can lead to feelings of anxiety in an individual. These stressors mostly vary from individual to individual. For example, I tend to feel jittery when I watch a film shot in a confined space. For someone else, a film portraying a certain relationship or the lack of one may trigger you.
Following is a list of movies across world cinema from the decade of 2010 that, according to popular opinion, have made for an anxiety-inducing watch. These films are known to make you feel uncomfortable, sick in your stomach, and, in a few cases, breathless because of how they portray certain situations, especially exploring the human psyche. The direction and post-production of these films also intricately contribute to creating a space where the audience is sucked into the high-strung screenplay. My personal opinions only reflect upon the ranking of these films, ranging from the one that made me feel most anxious to the one that made me feel the least anxious. The list, therefore, is subjective. However, every film on this list deserves to be watched and appreciated for the amount of effort, skills, and talent they bring to the world of cinema itself. Do you wish to add more names to the list? Comment below.
1. Uncut Gems (2019)
Directed by the Safdie Brothers, this 2019 American crime thriller is one of the most jittering film-watching experiences I have ever had. While the Safdies’ Good Time (2017) was a pulsating watch, Uncut Gems is more difficult to sit through because it is equally noisy and garish. It pushes you to the edge of your seat and makes you feel giddy and stressed. The film is a nightmarish, anxiety-inducing masterstroke, requiring you to be patient but tensed!
We follow Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler) as he rushes around the gambling district of New York City in pursuit of a black opal, unique and exquisite, that he had bought to pay off his gambling debts. His personal life too is unpleasant and complicated. In a fantastic performance, Sandler holds up the portrait of a man, rather than becoming Ratner in the process, who just seems to be collecting more and more troubles around him as the film progresses. He marks almost every scene of the film with his presence.
The camera jostles around him at arm’s length, capturing his movements – walking, speaking over phone calls, smirking, texting, thinking, screaming when about to be tossed from a window, among others – with careful attention without intruding on his associations with the world. The film sucks you into Ratner’s cacophonous world and leaves you gasping for breath. What’s worse, even during quieter moments, the storytelling requires you to be cautious and attentive – thanks to the brilliant background score by Daniel Lopatin, which helps with the pacing and the transitions.
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2. Shiva Baby (2020)
Written and directed by Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is a coming-of-age story that brings out the angst of attending family functions in the form of an anxious and claustrophobic Aperol Spritz. The screenplay is so tightly knit that halfway into the film, as you are watching Danielle’s social crisis come to life, you will want to make it pause for a gasp of air. It is dark, dark comedy complemented by a stinging soundtrack and camera work, including nerve-wracking close-ups and shaky camera movements. Seligman has penned a situation that hits home despite being peculiar to Danielle – how odd and bold at the same time!
Danielle (played by Rachel Sennott) is a young bisexual Jewish woman who accompanies her parents, Debbie and Joel, to a shiva. They rehearse the lines before entering the house so that everyone is on the same page. However, things start catching her off guard pretty soon. Her childhood friend and partner, Maya, as well as her sugar daddy, Max, and his family are here. Even the audience is put through a gamut of emotions as the different aspects of Danielle’s personal life clash under one roof. Shiva Baby is certainly one of the better portrayals of social anxiety from the past decade and is a crackling image of chaos to look out for.
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3. Climax (2018)
Written, directed, and co-edited by Gasper Noe, Climax features twenty-four odd actors enmeshed in a drug-laced disco. It is a scary psychedelic watch if ever there was one, about the abuse of drugs. The film features non-actors who are mainly dancers engaged in a nauseating motion; the spinning and queasy camera movements, long take (one of them being as long as 42 minutes), and the throbbing, ceaseless music make you feel physically uncomfortable. It can pump up your anxiety levels as you find it difficult to tear your eyes away from the screen. It is an exhausting cinematic experience but, like all drugs, it makes you want to re-engage in it after it is over.
The story doesn’t seem impossible and contributes to the scare. It is 1996, and an entire troupe of French dancers has gathered in an abandoned school for a three-day rehearsal. After it has ended and they are engaged in a lively after-party, someone decides to spike the sangria with a dangerous amount of LSD, leading to mass psychosis. Although there’s little to no personality development of these dancers, Noe ensures that none of them are treated as caricatures of the main plot. They are living breathing human beings whose conversations we become a party to as the camera lingers over them. Additionally and importantly, there’s the dancing – a mad wave of euphoric swirling, waacking, krumping, etc – that feels like you are a part of a bacchanalia. This one’s a hell of a ride.
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4. Son of Saul (2015)
Directed and co-written by László Nemes, this is a Hungarian drama that takes you on a hellish ride through the experience of the prisoners at Auschwitz. The horror of the narrative intensifies every minute during the runtime as you come to realize that the story spans a little longer than 24 hours. It is a courageous film, one that you will find difficult to sit through because it unflinchingly views the reality of the holocaust from the eye of the storm. Yet, there is a calmness to how Nemes goes about unpacking the drama, one that I found personally unsettling.
Saul Ausländer (played by Géza Röhrig ) is a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner at the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz. He is forced to participate in the spectacle of horror that the Nazis were putting up at the camp every day by working to salvage the clothes of the dead, burning their bodies, and preparing the gas chamber for subsequent massacres. The film opens right at the heart of a gas chamber where Saul thinks he has just gassed his own son to death and sets out to prepare for a proper Jewish burial amidst the talks of an uprising inside the camp. The shadow of death around Saul becomes an abstract image produced by the swirling fires, blood, and torture techniques. It is brutal and equally poignant in its encapsulation of sensory Hell, leaving you feeling sick in the stomach and anxiety-ridden.
5. Whiplash (2014)
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is a portrayal of the desire to aim for perfection, rather a perturbing obsession with it. If while growing up you have shared a strenuous relationship with a teacher or an authority figure, then consider yourself warned before you watch this film; it can affect your anxiety really badly. The sound mixing in this film contributes to the anxiety by blending the sound of beating drums, dialogues, and jazz music into a spirited cocktail, winning the award for Best Sound Mixing at the 87th Academy Awards.
Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) has a dream of becoming a great jazz drummer. As a step towards fulfilling it, he joins the Shaffer Conservatory Studio Band under the bandleader Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons). Fletcher initially tells him that the core idea is to relax during the performance, but as the narrative unfolds, he unleashes a display of monstrous greed for perfection in Andrew. He is problematic in his actions and mostly verbally abusive, pushing Andrew to a breaking point time and again until his own sanity starts to crumble under tension. Simmons’ performance itself is like a nightmare coming to life. Further, the unpredictability of Fletcher’s actions keeps you on your guard till the very end. Heartbeats racing and pulse throbbing, this film is a dramatic rendition of professional toxicity and anguish at its best.
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6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Lionel Shriver’s book by the same name upon which director Lynne Ramsay based this film is a masterclass in fiction writing. It asks the toughest questions and leaves the readers grappling for answers. Ramsay didn’t let the palpable tension of the debate between nature and nurture find a conclusion in this one either, making it an adaptation to look out for. It is deeply unsettling; even the camera work proposes to imitate the cyclical nature of trauma in human beings. Sadism, disturbing images of physical and emotional abuse, and the display of a debilitating relationship between mother and son, We Need to Talk about Kevin overuses the color red possibly as a warning against the anxious choke hold that the audience is going to be ensnared in during its runtime.
Kevin Khatchadourian (played by Ezra Miller) brutally murders several students, a catereria worker, a teacher, his father, and his sister a few days before turning 16. Coping with the tragedy of personal loss and a community-wide grievance, the film shuttles in and out of the present in an effort by Eva Khatchadourian (played by Tilda Swinton), Kevin’s mother, to reconcile with the many griefs that make up her life. Swinton’s performance of despair is one of the finest I have watched on screen. This is a brooding and fractured story of Kevin and Eva’s lives and relationships.
7. Gravity (2013)
Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity holds the power to make you feel breathless because of the enormity of oxygen-less space. In one of the most breathtaking scenes (by which I mean anxiety-inducing), when Ryan detaches herself from the broken part of the platform and is flipped into space, we are bound to experience the same panic that she does. In the absence of any other sound, it is her panic-stricken breath that fills up our ears. There is also a sense of constriction of space as the third-person narrative gradually ambles into a first-person narration. What’s astonishingly humble about this technical and beautiful-to-watch film is not the sense of awe it generates about actually being an astronaut in space, but that in its heart it is a survival story with a twist of circumstances. Perhaps, why it continues to be a personal favorite on this list is because it focuses as much on survival as on the human body and psyche in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
The plot follows Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) on her first space mission, who is responsible for performing a hardware upgrade on the Hubble Space Telescope. Alas, she and the space shuttle are hit by high-speed debris! She is saved by Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) and they return to the shuttle only to realize that their struggle for surviving this misadventure has only just begun. At the backdrop of all this is the Earth, the blue planet appearing like a silent spectator in the distance. The protagonists, especially Bullock, deliver great physical performances in Gravity, winning her a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, in 2014. It is an anxiety-inducing experience to watch out for.
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8. Krisha (2015)
Directed and written by Trey Edward Shults, this is a Thanksgiving drama that is borderline horrific. It portrays the dysfunctionality of Krisha’s family and their conflicting opinions and attitudes, tipping the harmonious occasion towards a disaster. The camera is careful not to intrude in the personal space of these family members, but it follows them around very closely – long tracking shots, sometimes whirling around or swinging in circles, zooming in, playing around with the dogs, and peeping into private spaces – almost making you a part of its expressionist adventure. It is an exploration of the multi-generational family dynamic in an effort to capture the anxiousness that lies at the heart of such a festive gathering.
Krisha (played by Krisha Fairchild) is a woman in her 60s who visits her sister and family for Thanksgiving Day. She proposes to cook dinner for them and is intent on reconciling with her estranged son, Trey (played by Trey Edward Shults). However, she soon starts to realize that she may have been gone for too long to let the family adjust among themselves without her. She starts feeling like an outsider and falls back upon a bundle of drugs she has been carrying in her purse. The simmering drama is brought to a boil by the end, leading to an anxiety-inducing experience among the audience. It is a Holiday film that leaves you unnerved and heartbroken for a change.
9. Parasite (2019)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Parasite is nerve-racking and nail-biting, making you forget on more than multiple occasions to take a breath. It masterfully blends black comedy, drama, and thriller into its folds and neatly aligns the two sets of characters – the Kim family and the Parks family – in a geometric tension. The film lacks any particular villain whom the audience can unanimously pitch their hate against; instead, the socio-economic circumstances of the current society become our target for villainy and sympathy at the same time. The proportionality of every frame in Parasite only seems to double up this anxiety-inducing experience, reminding us how one slip-up can make all hell break loose.
Kim Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-shik) poses as a university student to step into the role of an English teacher in place of his friend at the Parks residence. The Kim family lives in a semi-basement and thrives by folding pizza boxes, barely making ends meet. Hence, Ki-woo’s job at the Park residency introduces them to the lavish lifestyle of the upper class. They slowly pose as qualified professionals and trickle into the Parks’ house – Ki-jung (played by Park So-dam) is employed as an art therapist and Mr. Kim (played by Song Kang-ho) becomes the new chauffeur. Parasite is a ‘very slow rug pull’, a cinematic experience that is equally enthralling and unnerving. It won Bong Joon-ho the Best Picture award at the 92nd Academy Awards and the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
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10. Buried (2010)
Directed by Rodrigo Cortes, I remember watching this film and feeling like I was running out of air to breathe. Buried is hauntingly nightmarish, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, Premature Burial, or the tale of Anarkali’s tragic end. What’s better? The cinematic experience becomes an allegorical expression of the US experience in Iraq. The choking feeling that this 95 minutes-long survival drama generates makes it one of the most anxiety-inducing watches on this list, scary and intriguing in equal parts. Beware, it can leave you threateningly close to having a nervous breakdown.
Paul Conroy (played by Ryan Reynolds) wakes up to realize that he is stuck in an eight-by-eight wooden coffin. At his aid are three things – a lighter, a pen, and a phone – and he must survive even though the oxygen and the phone battery are running low. In the span of the whole film, we are stuck inside the coffin with Conroy and are allowed to view his captive state through changing camera angles only. We also hear voices over the many phone calls he places out of his desperation, even being put on hold in one case. The realistic storytelling hinges on a lowly, but adequate, budget, the immediate future of the character struggling to survive, and Reynolds’ terrific performance. It is a thrilling and cathartic ride if you can stick around till the end.
11. Her Smell (2018)
Written, directed, and co-produced by Alex Ross Perry, this is a disorderly film that plunges nose-deep into the deteriorating world of Becky, a female musician. It wears a rockstar leather jacket of unpleasantness and embraces the final efforts of Perry’s showmanship with a penchant for understanding it. The storm that drugs and music together create feels like a steep descent into anxiety right from the start of the film. The camera appears to close in on Becky when she walks down the backstage halls, loud overlapping voices fill the void when she is silent, and a frenzied pace marks each of the five episodes that make up this film; all of them being interspaced with the static and silence of home movie videos to remind us how the world of the punk rock group is an anomaly to how the world perceives them. It is exhaustingly breathtaking and difficult to look away from.
Elizabeth Moss plays Becky, the lead vocalist and guitarist of the band ‘Something She’, and owns the performance to her last teardrop and nosebleed. Becky is a mess; she is a narcissistic, drug-abusing, selfish and unstable mother to her daughter, Tama, and a musician living on the embers of her fast-feigning glory. The story follows her around from a distance as she tries to pick herself up and fails repeatedly till the very end. Her Smell is a remarkable anxiety-driven exploration of Becky’s last leg as a musician.
12. Madeline’s Madeline (2018)
Directed and co-written by Josephine Decker, this is Madeline’s frenzied story of self-exploration and emotional shape-shifting when provoked by external and internal forces. It seems as if in the act of metamorphosis, the film is also undergoing a dreamy, hazy change to become its final product, in which colors are constantly fading in and out of focus to arrange themselves in a performative cluster around Madeline. There’s an adrenaline rush always waiting for you around every corner, preempting you to suck your breath in for 90-odd minutes while watching this. Trigger warnings though, Madeline’s story also forces us to think about mental illness and, if left untreated, how mental illness can take over one’s everyday life.
Madeline (played by Helena Howard), a biracial teenager, is ready to put up a fight with her judgemental and overprotective mother, Regina (played by Miranda July), but her doting teacher, Evangeline (played by Molly Parker), wants her to explore her dream and inhabit it for the sake of her performance. Madeline’s lived experiences become fodder for Evangeline’s art, but whose story is it to tell – Madeline’s or Evangeline’s? The film proactively announces right at the start that the experience is going to be a metaphor and rightly so. Howard becomes Madeline, a fireball of emotions realizing themselves at the cost of her artistic integrity, that steers through clumpy darkness with impeccable clarity.
13. Two days, One Night (2014)
Directed and written by the Dardenne brothers, this film keeps the protagonist, Sandra, and the audience on their toes throughout its runtime, making you feel like an anxious flaneuse. The camera trails alongside her, tracing her footsteps and challenging us to keep pace with things in her life. This is a simple film with a simple premise made complicated by the range of emotions that Sandra brings to the table – she is worried, tired, anxious, strong, hopeful, and trying to be patient. Her constant movement throughout the film can get on your nerves (like it got on mine) but by keeping the revelations quiet and the definition of success nuanced, the Dardenne brothers deliver another masterclass in the study of class struggle.
The film begins in medias res. Sandra (played by Marion Cotillard) receives a call and is startled into action. She is informed that her employing company has decided to pay a bonus to 16 of her co-workers if they vote for her dismissal. Over the weekend, she must try and convince these people against the same. This task has been made all the more difficult because her mental health hasn’t been top-notch. The responses are a mixed bag. It is the unpredictability of the responses and Cotillard’s spellbinding performance that deserve to be watched and admired, even though it can get emotionally wrenching after a point.
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14. The Babadook (2014)
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, this film doubles up as a narrative on grief, anxiety, and trauma that manifests in the strained relationship between a mother-son duo. It can be an anxiety-inducing experience on a personal level for someone who is consciously trying to refuse the dangerous repercussions of mental illness and any debilitating physical issues arising from it.
Amelia Vannick (played by Essie Davis) continues to mourn the loss of her husband even though it has been seven years since his death and the birth of his baby boy, Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman). Samuel is convinced that the character of Mister Babadook – a scarecrow-like slender figure shrouded in a Victorian trench coat and painted in charcoal darkness – from the picture book he reads is real. The film then jumps into a haunting exploration of the Babadook’s real and supernatural presence and identity. While the film oscillates between violently noisy and aggressively calm moments, the growing strength of the Babadook and its lingering presence becomes increasingly transparent to us. The tension builds itself to a breaking point, but the film steers clear of being a cliche through the efficient use of jump scares and a tornado of confusion manifesting in Amelia as a mother and human being. All the tension and strife manifest into an ending so cathartic that I’ve loved to relive it multiple times over the years.
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15. Trapped (2016)
Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, this film puts to test Shaurya, the protagonist, and our patience. It makes you think about the age-old idea of the survival of the fittest by recontextualizing it in the heart of the modern metropolitan city, Mumbai, and making it an anxiety-inducing survival drama. The film is careful enough to not over-dramatize Shaurya’s penury. Instead, it redefines the boundaries of anguish by exploring the theme of urban loneliness, made even more upsetting by the completely cut-off and enclosed space where Shaurya is trapped in. It leaves us with no silver linings except a note on the limits of human desperation. Trapped is, in my opinion, no less than a modern horror story coming to life.
Shaurya (played by Rajkumar Rao) and Noorie (played by Geetanjali Thapa) are in love. They must elope before Noorie is married off the next day to someone else. In pursuit of finding affordable housing, Shaurya moves into an empty apartment at the Swarg where the construction has terminated due to legal issues. However, he gets locked inside this apartment without the knowledge of Noorie and the watchman of the apartment complex. What follows is a gut-wrenching saga of Shaurya’s attempts at escaping or gathering help, forcing him to eat whatever he can find and talk with a rat for company. Rao as Shaurya is one of his career-defining performances till now. Trapped is in equal amounts claustrophobic and brilliant, making this an essential Indian film from the past decade to look out for.
16. Mother! (2017)
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, there’s no better way to describe this psychological-horror film except to call it bizarre and harrowing. It seeks to explore gender relations and the patriarchally ordained roles of a man and woman, commenting on vanity and sensitivity in the same sentence. If you read further into this, it can double up as nature’s plea against human interference. This isn’t a terrifying film but the nightmarish quality of the screenplay builds in inches toward a panicky climax. As for me, the build-up to the climax and the final ten minutes of this film were disturbing and chaotic. It can totally make you feel breathless and burdened with symbolism and metaphors.
Him (played by Javier Bardem) and Mother (played by Jennifer Lawrence) live in a recently burned home that is quite remote from the appearance of it. Mother is hesitant about the incoming guests but Him seems to be welcoming them with arms wide open, especially since they claim to be fans of his writing. As more and more people enter this house, it starts appearing like infiltration into Paradise. Lawrence has been ordained with a tough role, and she stands out in it too. Aronofsky’s passion project is craftsy but messy; you will either love it or hate it.
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17. Pihu (2018)
If you are a new parent and/or love babies, this film promises to leave you terrified and helpless. Written and directed by Vinod Kapri, I could not sit through this film without feeling my insides churning in worry for Pihu. The sound of bursting balloons, incessant phone ringing, and Pihu’s desperate attempts at waking her mother up help elevate the tension. What’s worse, Pihu is based on a true story as it announces right at the start. It also challenges the normative ideas of parental supervision and parenthood but in a twisted, sadistic way. So, beware, this is not the Home Alone film you can enjoy with a mug of hot chocolate.
Pihu (played by Myra Vishwakarma) wakes up in the morning after her 2nd birthday only to discover that her mother has died and her father is not at home. She must fend for herself, which means navigating the modern technological home landscape consisting of a steam iron, a refrigerator, a mobile phone, and a geyser. Myra is a beautiful little performer in this main role. Although the film has an elaborate subplot that comments upon the relationship between her parents, it is Pihu and her survival story that keeps you on your toes and leaves you exhaustingly anxious.
18. Melancholia (2011)
Directed and written by Lars von Trier, Melancholia is an art film of abstract quality that keeps mental health at the epicenter of its attention. The idea is said to have been derived from Trier’s own encounter with mental health. His film engages in an examination of the human psyche and its responses to an impending catastrophe. The entire film has a hallucinogenic quality to it, making it a visionary opera-like work of destruction and depression at the same time. Especially with its hint of sadism, it can quite easily trigger someone who has known and lived through the realities of a sifting mental health landscape. If you are willing to be patient through this one, remember the world isn’t ending now, at least not yet.
The film begins with a dream-like sequence of Earth colliding with a rogue planet which the scientists choose to call Melancholia. The film is divided into two main parts featuring the story of two sisters, Justine (played by Kristen Dunst) and Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg). While the first half takes place at a mansion where Justine and Michael throw their wedding reception, the second part begins in an old, lavish mansion but soon shifts its time-space focus to devote itself to Claire’s growing obsession with the predicted collision. Both stories bring us very close to observing the two shades of mental illness, specifically clinical depression. While Justine revels in the fact the world is coming to an end, the uncertainty of life leads to a crisis of mental stability for Claire. It brings us too close to observing what a mental health crisis looks like on the big screen.
19. Take Shelter (2011)
Written and directed by Jeff Nicholas, this film is a study of a man with paranoid schizophrenia. It is an anxiety-inducing film to watch because it sustains the fear of uncertainty, the ‘what if…’, and channels it into apocalyptic visions of a naturally destructive force. The dread arises in Curtis a sense of anxiety that he then washes away by working on his unconventional pet project, a storm shelter. The storm is literal and figurative, manifesting on the outside as well as inside Curtis, best encapsulated in the image of the sky opening like a beast’s gaping mouth.
Curtis LaForche (played by Michael Shannon) and Samantha (played by Jessica Chastain) are loving parents to the 6 years-old Hannah. They are saving up money for travel, but Curtis seems to be experiencing the early stages of paranoid schizophrenia. He decides to improve the condition of the storm shelter in their field to keep his family safe from a storm he believes is brewing around the corner. However, neither we nor Curtis can be sure of what’s real, in that it becomes a heartbreaking exploration of mental illness.
Related List: All Jeff Nichols Movies Ranked
20. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Directed by André Øvredal, this supernatural horror movie not only produces a strange, unnerving discomfort but also makes you feel anxious because of being situated in a very closed-off space, especially in the first two acts. The palpable tension in the air has been captured by the unmoving stillness of the mortuary and the corpse. At one point in the film when they discover that all the corpses in the mortuary have gone missing, I could feel that I had been holding my breath in for too long. This film whisks up the tension too well to dismiss it.
The plot follows a coroner father-son duo, Tommy (played by Brian Cox) and Austin (played by Emile Hirsch) as they set out to perform an autopsy on the corpse of an unidentified young woman. As they try to unfurl the possible cause of homicide, they are quickly whisked into a strange confusion suggesting that the body has just experienced death but the person has also been dead for a long time. Olwen Katherine Kelly’s performance as the corpse with a blank death stare contributes to the anxiety-inducing nature of the film.