The word “gritty” is often used by reviewers to describe films which portray graphic physical violence, lone wolf characters, and probably a line of coke or two. While I feel that’s accurate, my own personal definition for a gritty film differs slightly. If I describe a film as gritty, expect it to be both emotionally and physically violent and draining. I should use the phrase, “it made me want to crawl in a cave for two weeks to recover,” and mean it as a compliment (I have actually said that about a couple films on the list below).
The combination of unpleasantness in plot and honourable drive in characters seems to draw audiences to these types of films. Many times, there is a moral code established (not necessarily in conjunction with civil codes) and the protagonists follow these moral codes to their ends. More often than not, destruction conquers over redemption. Personally, this tends to make the films less watchable than most other movies. This does not speak to their quality, because often they’re of the highest eschelon, but rather speaks to the viscereal nature of their content.
Using these criteria I’ve come up with a list of films that I believe are ten of the greatest gritty films. They are assembled in an order based largely on how gritty they are, as I think they’re all amazingly good films.
10. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
I’ve discussed Pan’s Labyrinth from a visual perspective before, but I’d like to talk about the film from a more emotional perspective right now. The film pops in at number ten here because it’s actually almost two different types of film matched together in a cinematic dance. You have the fairy tale world of Ofelia’s imagination starkly contrasted with the horrific, violent world of Ofelia’s reality. If Guillermo del Toro concentrated on solely one of those two elements, the film would have no balance.
However, the intensity of the real world lingers with the viewer throughout the film and for a good length of time afterwards. With the tragic ending came the fantasmic epilogue which, depending on how one chooses to see it, leave the viewer with the potential of hope. Whether you choose to think of the epilogue as true or not (in the world of the film), one still must accept the gravity of the real world.
Personally, that was my breaking point. Despite everything, all the violence, I had been holding out for the hope that Ofelia would escape with her mother into the fantasy world, even with all its own horrors. But when her stepfather murders her, there’s a huge sense of defeat and loss. Yes, this was her only way to remain in her fantasy world, but at the same time she still finds herself falling complete victim to the violence of her waking life.
9. The Machinist (2004)
The Machinist, directed by Brad Anderson, was an easy pick for this list. I imagine most of us saw it with a slight voyeuristic curiousity to see what Christian Bale looks like 63 pounds down, but then found ourselves absolutely gripped by the story. Bale plays a factory employee plagued by insomnia caused by guilt, leading to hallucinations and severe physical health problems.
As we follow this character further into the depths of his insanity, we discover the reason for his tortured soul and body – repressed memories of murder. Anderson fills the screen with hints and symbolism along the way and director of photography Xavi Giménez presents the viewer with a dark and dreary world to match the character’s morose mentality.
8. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is Sidney Lumet’s unwaivering look at the destructive influence of violence and greed on one family. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers both in need of a quick buck who decide to rob their own parents’ jewelery shop. In the process, their mother is inadvertantly killed and their father (Albert Finney) sets out on a course to avenge her death, not knowing he hunts his own sons. Hoffman throws a jaw-droppingly good performance at the screen as a borderline psychopathic drug addict and Hawke balances this with his performance as a pathetic, inneffectual patsy.
Lumet never lets up and the tension in this film builds and builds ultimately releasing in an anti-catharsis in which Albert Finney murders Hoffman. Instead of relief, the audience leaves the film with a sense of defeat, a ball formed in the pit of your stomach. As good as the movie is, I never found myself able to watch it again. It emotionally ripped me to shreds, but I suppose that was the point.
7. Brick (2005)
In Brick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a comeback performance as Brandon, the sarcastic outcast teenager – this film’s Humphrey Bogart equivalent. When he discovers the body of his ex-girlfriend, he goes on a noir-esque detective mission to find her killer and avenge her death. This sends him into the underworld of high school drug dealers, a much more dangerous place than it has any right to be. With the help a fellow outcast known only as the Brain, Brandon tracks down the head drug dealer, the Pin, and plots his revenge.
Despite the dark undertones of the main plot, the script is full of funny dialogue and quirky characters. Overall, however, it is a dark and ultimately disturbing film both conceptually and practically. The film is almost set in a dystopia where adults are either unimportant or ineffectual and the world is run by teens, with all their hormones and growing pains. It provides an interesting look into the darker side of young heartbreak and enduring love, even after total destruction.
6. Mystic River (2003)
I’m going to date myself here, but Mystic River was the first R-rated film I saw in theatres and my boyfriend’s mom had to buy the tickets. So this film’s place on this list may be partially nostalgic but it’s still one of the most emotional and distressing films I can remember seeing. Sean Penn plays the gangster/ex-gangster father of a murdered girl, and Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins play his now-estranged childhood friends, both with their own demons. The film twists around finding the murderer and ventures deeper into dark corners of the three friends’ past.
Director Clint Eastwood does a great job of using his shot choices and working with cinematographer Tom Stern to portray grief, fear, and shame – the main motivators of the three friends, respectively. The men spiral downwards, and are eventually consumed by their demons with Sean Penn wrongly believing Tim Robbins to be his daughter’s killer, and Robbins’ guilt from his abuse as a child allowing this, with Penn ultimately killing him. Kevin Bacon proves to be ineffectual as a cop, unable to bring his old friend to justice and ultimately none of them are better off.
5. The War Zone (1999)
The War Zone is actor turned director Tim Roth’s hard look at a family in turmoil due to physical and sexual violence. Ray Winstone plays the abusive, domineering father of a family newly moved away from London to the country with the birth of a new baby. Freddie Cunliffe is Tom, the teenage son, who discovers that his father and his sister have been keeping a dark secret from the rest of the family, including their mother, played by Tilda Swinton.
This film is not for the weak of heart or those looking for some light viewing. I found it well made, excellently acted, and extremely difficult to watch and I’ve not often found the opportunity to discuss it. If I had to pick one word to describe it though, it would most definitely be gritty. I’m still haunted by certain moments, which I won’t reveal here as this film is marginally less known than the others on this list.
4. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
I’ve discussed this film briefly before, but looking at it fully, Quentin Tarantino’s first directing venture is bloody, darkly funny, and stomach twistingly suspenseful. Combined with unforgettable characters and an utterly tragic ending, I think Reservoir Dogs is one of the best films ever, let alone one of the best gritty films. Tim Roth gives a stunning performance as the good/bad guy, with Harvey Keitel playing off him brilliantly.
What makes this film difficult for me is how badly I want everyone to win, so you know the whole time you’re watching at some point you will be disappointed. The bad guys are so relatable, but at the same time, Tim Roth has you rooting for him the whole time. The entire film comprises of one huge stomach knot which slowly unravels into violence, tears, and regret.
3. Deliverance (1972)
I don’t feel like I need to say much here. Maybe just a link to the Dueling Banjos? That’s enough to send shivers down my spine. Very few films exist in this world that I actively dislike talking about. Deliverance is one of the few exceptions. I’ll skip over some of the more gruesome details (if you don’t know already, I’m definitely not going to be the one responsible for explaining to you what “Squeal like a pig,” means), and I’d really like to focus on Jon Voight’s performance.
Maybe films have an audience surrogate character, and I believe that in Deliverance Jon Voight is that character. He’s never going to forget or get over the events that unfolded during the film, and neither are we. John Boorman directs the film with a distinct lack of empathy and the camera never shies away from the horrors that befall the men on their rafting journey, even when we might beg it to.
2. Straw Dogs (1971)
Straw Dogs by Sam Peckinpah, considered ultraviolent and shocking on its release, still emits the same response today. Dustin Hoffman and Susan George play a young newlywed couple beset by violence in rural England. Set in a time when the USA was still entangled in the Vietnam War efforts, Peckinpah uses Straw Dogs to show that violence is a part of all humanity, even in the most idyllic settings. Just about everything nasty and violent happens from simple fighting to rape. The psychological effect on the characters is soul destroying.
When I think of grit in film, this is usually the first one to come to mind because A.) it was so shocking when it was released and B.) it is still so shocking today. It became sort of a defining film of a sub-genre and helped solidify Sam Peckinpah as a no-holds-barred filmmaker (along with The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).
1. Nil By Mouth (1997)
Nil By Mouth, directed by Gary Oldman, along with The War Zone above, is a very big part of why I’m terrified of Ray Winstone. This movie presents one of the toughest looks at drug abuse and domestic violence I’ve ever seen portrayed in film. Oldman directed the film through almost a documentary’s lens – everything feels so real, so visceral. The camera doesn’t blink, so when Winstone is kicking the crap out of his wife or Charlie Creed-Miles is sticking a needle in his arm, the best you can do is cover your eyes with your hands and hope that the sick feeling in your stomach doesn’t creep up.
I can’t make an objective argument for having placed this at the top of the list. It’s not necessarily that it’s more gritty than the preceding films, but of all of these and other films I’ve seen, this one stuck to my guts the most. This one got under my skin and stayed there. Ultimately, isn’t that what a film like this aims to do? To leave a lasting mark?
I’ve tried to put in variety with this list and to mention a couple films that might have passed people by. The criteria I set forth – watchability, usage of violence/ultraviolence, and psychologically difficult themes – I feel are well represented in the ten films described above. There are several films I wanted to include, so honourable mention goes to: Requiem For a Dream, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Santa Sangre, Memento, Blood Simple., History of Violence.
Despite generally making less money than your average Hollywood fare, gritty films aren’t going anywhere. It’s become a staple as a sub-genre and garnered its own cult following. They may be more difficult to watch, but they’re often dealing with more serious themes and tap deeper into our emotions. These are the films that remind us what the power of cinema truly is.
What are some of your favourite gritty films? Tell me in the comments!