15 Great Films About Troubled Geniuses
Genius and suffering often go hand in hand, with great figures like Nikola Tesla and Beethoven having struggled with mental illness. Being so astute of mind means a heightened awareness of all the bad in the world; as the saying goes “ignorance is bliss.” Nobody—not even geniuses—can be good at everything. Therefore, it’s common for those who excel at mathematics to be less successful in the social realm, forever cursed to be misunderstood and alone. Artists and gifted writers have a reputation for poverty, obsession and isolation, just as scientists are known to work their lives away in the lab.
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Sure, they change the world or get some masterpieces out of it, but as what cost? Should a line be drawn between fulfilling your destiny, pushing your abilities to the limit, and being tormented—consumed—by it? This kind of mental affliction is a huge catalyst for drama, meaning cinema is littered with troubled artists and famously tortured minds. Inner conflict is generated as impassioned experts, composers, painters and code-breakers are made to choose between being a workaholic or having a family; their health or their inventions. From biopics to war dramas, here are fifteen best movies about brilliant brains that are made to suffer for it—either physically or mentally.
15. Phantom Thread (2017)
Paul Thomas Anderson delivered another stunning collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis following the critically-acclaimed masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007). Phantom Thread was Day-Lewis’s final on-screen appearance before retirement, going out with a bang thanks to Anderson’s masterful filmmaking. Day-Lewis plays a talented haute couture dressmaker in London, 1950s. Like many stereotypical fashion designers, Reynolds Woodcock is a snobbish, demanding workaholic who sees himself above everyone else. Reynolds position in high-society—even making dresses for royalty on occasion—is privileged, but extremely pressuring. It’s not just his caretaking sister that suffers from his obsessive nature—he does too.
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Reynolds relies on strict routine to perform at his best, lashing out at any deviations. He fails to enjoy all the material goods his success has cultivated; all he can focus on is perfecting his dresses, late into the night. Clients regard him as a charming genius, but his young muse and lover Alma (Vicky Krieps) sees the darkness that lies within. Reynolds is subsequently poisoned for his toxic behavior, falling gravely ill and suffering hallucinations. Day-Lewis gives an immaculate performance as the stifling, disturbed creative, haunted by superstitions and the death of his mother. By the end of Phantom Thread, he willingly gives into his illness, allowing Alma to poison him once more so that he may be free from the shackles of his mind and rest.
Read The Complete Review of Phantom Thread Here
14. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Majority of the films on this list are atmospherically heavy, so The Royal Tenenbaums offers slight relief. Wes Anderson’s comedy-drama tells the story of three gifted children, each achieving great success at a young age but going downhill in adulthood. The three siblings are made up of Chas, a mathematician and businessman; Margot, who was awarded a grant for her script in ninth grade; and Richie, a tennis prodigy. The Royal Tenenbaums is written from the perspective of their not-so-great father, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman). Royal pretends to have stomach cancer to win back his ex-wife and children’s affections (and money), each now struggling adolescents.
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Due to their achievements at such a young age, Chas, Margot and Eli find themselves in a slump. Chas (Ben Stiller) becomes overbearingly protective of his two children following the death of his wife; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), though a style icon, is a brooding chain-smoker who’s cheating on her husband; and Richie (Luke Wilson) travels the world on a cruise ship following a nervous breakdown. Richie, in-love with his adopted sister Margot, even attempts suicide when hearing of her sexual promiscuity. If only they’d been born with normal IQ’s, perhaps their careers wouldn’t have flopped so early and left them broken by thirty. Anderson handles the serious themes of death and mental illness with wit and charm; never romanticizing it but never burdening the audience. The black-comedy is also stylistically astute, with the auteur being renowned for his satisfying cinematography.
13. X + Y (2014)
Though autism isn’t itself a mental illness, those who are diagnosed do often struggle mentally with it. Despite the immense brain power autism can (often, but not always) allow (such as advanced mathematical skills), the neurological condition causes repetitive behavior and difficulty reading social ques. As a result, many people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome are natural geniuses that struggle to fit in. Morgan Matthews explores this in his drama X + Y or A Brilliant Young Mind, as it was released in the US. Inspired by Matthews’s 2007 documentary Beautiful Young Minds, X + Y stars Asa Butterfield as Nathan Ellis, diagnosed with autism at the age of nine. Nathan loses his father early in the film, and as the only one who could connect easily with him, both Nathan and his mother live strained lives.
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Nathan rejects any form of physical contact and requires many specific routines to prevent spiraling. His mother (Sally Hawkins) abides, despite her stress and loneliness. Nathan has barely any social life, focusing entirely on his studies. A math prodigy since childhood, Nathan earns a spot in the International Mathematical Olympiad and flies out of his comfort zone to Taiwan. Nathan finds everyday life extremely difficult, and thus this change has a great impact on him. Luckily, Nathan grows from it, making friends and adjusting to new habits. His first experience of love forces Nathan to choose between his brain and his heart, laboring to express the emotions within him that he finds so difficult to understand.
Read The Complete Review of X+Y Here
12. Shine (1996)
Geoffrey Rush won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of this tortured genius. Shine is a biographical drama directed by Scott Nicks. It recounts the life of piano prodigy David Helfgott, who in spite of his promise, winds up spending most of his life in various mental institutions. Growing up in South Australia, he is subjugated to the mental and physical abuse of his father Peter (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Peter mercilessly pushes David to win musical competitions, yet doesn’t let him leave for a scholarship in America. Later, he manages to win a Concerto in London, but collapses as a result of the demanding musical number. He is bombarded by multiple nervous breakdowns, repeatedly admitted to institutions and given electric shock therapy to tame his unhinged behavior.
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The intense pressures of David’s talented mind and strict father are what cause his destructive, uncontrollable personality as an adult. At least, this is what Nicks implies in the film, which is obviously partially dramatized. Nonetheless, David’s time in London revealed definite signs of schizoaffective disorder. His gift as a pianist can be interpreted to reflect his fractured mental state, being cited by musical critics as “erratic” and “incoherent.” Shine has been criticized for its exaggerated portrayal of David’s father as a tyrant, with conflicting reports from the family about its authenticity. That said, Shine remains true to David’s musical genius and mental illness, avoiding the cliches of cheap sentimentally and compelling viewers with drama and inspiration.
11. Amadeus (1984)
A refined period drama that treats your eyes and your ears, Amadeus is the semi-biographical tale of Mozart. The infamous composer is known throughout the world for being a master of music; a natural born genius who created symphonies of the highest calibre. Historians have since studied his letters and restless behaviour, believing the 18th century legend to have suffered severe depressive episodes and speculated personality disorder. Miloš Forman fictionalizes the latter part of Mozart’s life in this Oscar-winning drama, starring Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri—an Italian composer who, in the film, kills Mozart out of jealousy.
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Salieri confesses to murdering Mozart following a suicide attempt. He recounts Mozart’s obscene behavior which Salieri—as a devout Catholic—found offensive and mocking. Mozart is later consumed by alcoholism and grief, collapsing from overwork. Though Amadeus only skims the surface of the mental strife Mozart is thought to have endured, Hulce delivers a hugely triumphant performance as the unpredictable virtuoso. Forman’s lavish film is adapted from Peter Shaffer’s stage play, which also gained immense praise. It’s a powerful, provocative—oftentimes humors—depiction of the erratic prodigy’s life, esteemed for his ability to conduct “music for the Gods”.
Read The Complete Review of Amadeus Here
10. Steve Jobs (2015)
Steve Jobs was a business magnate that literally changed the face of modern technology. The co-founder and chairman of Apple—the dominating multinational tech company—was gifted in the art of computing, starting the company in his garage at just twenty-one. That said, his legacy is somewhat controversial. Jobs had a reputation for being grating and manipulative, barking demands and putting others down. Danny Boyle’s biopic exposes both sides to Jobs: the genius and the uncompromising hot head. The film frames Jobs as composer of industry, with the designers and engineers acting as the musicians. The analogy is apt, and shows viewers how Jobs paved the way for the 21st century’s entire way of life.
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Michael Fassbender holds huge presence over the screen, charged with the same ambition and frustration Jobs has been attributed to. Being a workaholic, Jobs is depicted as arrogant and alienated—tightly wound with the ruthless determination of a true entrepreneur. Known to be a ‘loner’ ever since his misbehaving school days, Jobs was distanced from those around him, lost in his own expansive mind. Experts have also cited his perfectionism as pathological. His mansion remained devoid of furniture for years, unable to pick out a sofa for all his billions. He spent half an hour choosing a shade of grey for the bathrooms of his company stores. Though Jobs was never diagnosed with OCD when alive, it’s likely the cause of both his success and ultimate loneliness.
Read The Complete Review of Steve Jobs Here
9. Frida (2002)
Julie Taymor’s captivating biopic is rich in Mexican culture, recounting the private and professional life of surrealist artists Frida Kahlo. With political revolution and fine art bursting at the seams, Frida offers an energetic look into the life of the chaotic and troubled artist. A notable of figure of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo has inspired awe through her self-portraits and native folk-style dreamscapes—even so far as causing “Fridamania”. Like many great artists, Kahlo was victim to much physical and mental turmoil. She endured polio at the age of nine, and a severe bus accident left her in chronic pain for most of her life. She was diagnosed with depression and even attempted suicide twice in her life. These ailments, though damaging to Kahlo’s private life, clearly influenced her internationally recognized work—her “portraits of pain” depicting spine injuries and hospital beds.
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Salma Hayek is the larger-than-life presence behind Taymor’s Frida Kahlo. Though the film may feel to jump from one explosive incident to another, this was undoubtedly Kahlo’s experience in real life—trauma, divorce and Communism flooding her existence. Frida attempts to weave an intricate portrait of the wily painter, covering all bases of her sexuality, alcoholism, affairs and political movements. Amidst this array of colorful events, Taymor integrates Kahlo’s artistic flair and legacy by starting various scenes with a painting. These works—which mostly engage with magical realism and the Mexicayotl movement—then melt into bustling live-action.
8. Rain Man (1988)
Rain Man was the highest grossing film of 1988 and continues to be a highly favorable film among viewers. Barry Levinson’s buddy road movie has an unconventional lead duo: a self-centered automobile dealer and his estranged, autistic brother. Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), like most young businessmen, is smooth-talking and arrogant. He’s in the middle of importing Lamborghinis to LA when his father dies, and irritated to find £3 million of his estate is being sent to an unnamed trustee. Charlie traces the money back to a mental institution, where he meets his older brother for the first time.
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Raymond (or “Rain Man”—Charlie’s imaginary childhood friend) Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) has autism and savant syndrome, showing incredible memory skills and recall. Charlie decides to use his brother to get his share of the money, breaking him out of the institution despite Raymond’s clear distress. Not really knowing what’s going on, Raymond is quick to unsettle, having lived a life of rigorous routine. Charlie learns (the hard way) to adapt to his behaviors, loving Raymond despite his emotional unavailability. Raymond might be able to count 246 toothpicks on the floor within seconds, or make $86,000 counting cards at black jack, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to navigate life. Raymond is unable to express feelings, and must watch a certain show every day and be in bed by 11pm in order to remain at peace. These compulsions make the life of himself and those around him extremely challenging, but rewarding.
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7. Love & Mercy (2014)
It may be surprising for some viewers to learn that the man behind the poppy, up-beat surfer sound of The Beach Boys was actually extremely disturbed. Brian Wilson—lead singer of the 60s pop-rock band—is regarded as a pioneer of musical composition. Wilson would spend days in the recording studio experimenting with new sounds that, though unappreciated at the time (Pet Sounds receiving a lukewarm critical response at best in 1966), proved a landmark in the music industry’s history. Director Bill Pohlad alternates between young Wilson’s obsessive production of the album (played by Paul Dano) and his older, drug-induced self (played by John Cusack). These switches in time frame exhibits the before and after of mental illness, which led to his loss of creative control and overall free will.
Love & Mercy balances the raw and the beautiful by showing viewers the brutality of artistic genius that was cut short by his severe psychiatric issues. Or moreover, the manipulation he suffered at the hands of it. Dano received high praise for his heart-breaking performance as the young man being slowly torn by paranoia, where early signs of schizophrenia were beginning to kick in. The sounds and voices Wilson hallucinated simultaneously inspired and crowded his musical innovation. Unfortunately, both stages of Wilson’s life were domineered by cruel men; first his demanding father, then his abusive therapist. Dr. Eugene Landy practiced shady methods of 24-hour therapy over Wilson—drugging him, overworking him and controlling every aspect of his life through fearmongering.
6. My Left Foot (1989)
Daniel Day-Lewis impressed critics once again with his earlier portrayal of a troubled genius. Christy Brown (Day-Lewis) overcomes all kinds of obstacles in his pursuit of art. Directed by Jim Sheridan, My Left Foot is an Oscar-winning comedy-drama, adapted from Brown’s own 1954 autobiography. Brown was born into a poor, working-class family of fifteen in Ireland. His cerebral palsy mean he could only move one foot, while the rest of his limbs remained stiff. Believed to be devoid of any real future, Brown defied the laws of nature by becoming a painter and author, using only his left toes. My Left Foot takes viewers through Brown’s incredible life story, starting from his childhood.
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Brown developed an interest in art and literature from very young, and managed to attend a school for the disabled. After overcoming not only physical hurdles, but mental ones such as grief and suicidal thoughts, Brown finds both everlasting love and a successful career. Sheridan’s inspirational story exemplifies the power of imagination and determination, where genius can break free from anyone—no matter their disadvantage. Day-Lewis in particular contributed to the film’s critical success, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1990. In a 2015 consensus, hundreds of Academy members voted that it should have also won Best Picture instead of Driving Miss Daisy (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1989).
5. The Theory of Everything (2014)
Stephen Hawking is one of the most famous geniuses in history. The astrophysicist discovered that black holes emit radiation and thus advanced scientific studies regarding space. Yet, Dr. Hawking’s contributions to society was at one time deemed highly unlikely; his disease beginning to deteriorate both his physical body and any notion of a future. In spite of his slowly progressing motor neuron disease—gradually paralysing his limbs and his vocal cords—Hawking’s was determined to study, write and teach. He received an education from both Oxford and Cambridge University and went on to win numerous awards and honours in the field of science.
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The Theory of Everything was exalted for its gorgeous, vintage-style cinematography and incredible performances. Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his tender portrayal of Hawking, beginning from his student days when he received his diagnosis. Director James Marsh recites Hawking’s life—his marriage, his work and his illness—with grace, inspiring viewers with determination and gratitude. Much of the film is centred on the romance and hardships he and his ex-wife faced, adapted from Jane Hawking’s 2007 memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. Don’t let the lush, dreamlike compositions fool you: Hawking’s life was far from easy (but it was certainly fulfilling).
4. At Eternity’s Gate (2018)
Everybody knows that the beloved impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh had a short but certainly not sweet life. To look at his vivid, brightly colored paintings of sunflowers and starry skies, it’s easy to assume Van Gogh had a rose-tinted experience of the world. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Van Gogh notoriously amputated his own ear off during a psychotic episode, drank yellow paint to try and poison his insides, and spent a (productive) year at a mental hospital. Unfortunately for him, Van Gogh’s work was only recognize following his suicide at age 37. In life, he was considered a poor failure and a partial lunatic.
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Julian Schnabel eloquently portrays the true, suffocating torment of Van Gogh’s mind without sacrificing any appreciation for his art. Willem Dafoes’s Van Gogh is impassioned, desperate and truly gifted in his visionary artistic abilities. Julian Schnabel uses unconventional methods of filmmaking to reflect Van Gogh’s fragmented state of mind, and the unique way in which he saw the world. The film itself is like an abstract, expressionist painting; free-flowing, with close POV shots and experimental use of sound. At Eternity’s Gate feels almost like a prayer—to Van Gogh, to nature, to some higher calling. He swings between ecstatic exhilaration and manic depression, and it’s clear Van Gogh didn’t want to paint, but needed to. He is charged—almost electrically—with a hysterical urgency to pick up his brush, creating over 900 paintings in his short lifetime.
3. The Imitation Game (2014)
Alan Turing not only advanced early theoretical computer science—effectively building the first computer—but also vastly contributed to the defeat of the Nazi party in World War Two. What’s more, he was most likely on the autism spectrum and struggled to fit in—one of the few people close to him dying at age 18. His difficulties outside the realms of science were exasperated by his homosexuality, which wasn’t just frowned upon but illegal in 1950s Britain. The condemned code-breaker was arrested for “gross indecency” and given hormone injections to avoid imprisonment, unable to continue his work and committing suicide at the age of 41.
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Benedict Cumberbatch warms viewers with his earnest performance as the posthumous Turing. Cumberbatch has a knack for bringing vulnerability to a character of cold-hearted intellect, as he proved in the starring role of Sherlock (2010-17). His portrayal as Turing is no less deft, diving into the depth of Turing’s brilliant mind and humane flaws. Norwegian film director Morten Tyldum combines heartfelt drama with a wartime spy thriller, showing us how Turing and his team of mathematicians won the war without stepping foot on the field. The Nazi Enigma machine reset its code every night, meaning the team only had 24 hours at a time to decipher the messages. Working against the clock (and his disapproving superiors), Turing built his own machine to do what the human eye simply cannot.
2. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
As the title suggests, Ron Howard’s drama takes place in the beautiful mind of a genius—probing at its marvels and murky corners. Based on the true story of John Forbes Nash, A Beautiful Mind won four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress. Nash was an influential American mathematician who won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to game theory. The film is adapted from Sylvia Nasar’s 1997 book, running through Nash’s life from his university days until retirement. Nash’s life story was a myriad of ups and downs, incessantly plagued by schizophrenic hallucinations and paranoid delusions.
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Russel Crowe twitches and mutters his way through his central performance, embodying the incredible, twisted mind of Nash that worsened with age. Despite the support and patience of his wife Alicia Nash (Jennifer Connelly), Nash’s symptoms began to affect his work, neglecting his duties as a professor to study encrypted enemy telecommunications from the Soviet Union. Of course, the men from the Pentagon that Nash believed to be chasing him didn’t exist. Neither did his best friend and old roommate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany). Nash was consequently taken a mental institution and given brutal shock therapy. A Beautiful Mind is a moving love story that sensitively raises issues around mental illness and how it should be treated. Nash eventually decided to relinquish his mind-numbing anti-psychotics in favor of self-acceptance and love.
1. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Matt Damon and Robin Williams deliver equally stellar performances in Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed drama Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon initially wrote the script as part of his final assignment at Harvard University. Then, Ben Affleck joined to work on the screenplay, starring in the film alongside Damon. Good Will Hunting went on to win two Oscars and an improved critical response over time. It follows the life of rough-and-ready Will Hunting in Boston, who works as a janitor in a nearby university. On the surface, Will seems content with his working-class live of bar fights and late-night boozing with the lads. Yet, his bedroom is stacked with books, casually teaching himself into becoming a mathematical genius.
Will is caught solving a math professors near-impossible equation when passing a black board on one of his shifts. Having been arrested for assaulting a police officer, Will must choose between prison or therapy. This may seem like an easy enough decision, but Will’s walls are highly built and heavily guarded. Robin Williams sweeps in with shrewd and touching therapeutic abilities after Will taunts all the other councilors away. Dr. Sean Maguire’s own experience with domestic abuse give him an edge in breaking down Will’s defense mechanisms, which he does with wit, honesty and tough love.