10 Great But Gut-Wrenching Movies You Can Only Watch Once

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Summary

  • Some great but brutal movies are too difficult to watch more than once, delivering powerful messages but with scenes that can be too disturbing to endure.
  • Films that push boundaries justify their unsettling scenes for extreme emotional reactions or poignant messages, but that doesn’t guarantee viewers will watch them again.
  • Movies like Manchester by the Sea, Requiem For a Dream, and Midsommar provide unique and devastating experiences that may not be easy to sit through twice.

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Some great but brutal movies are too difficult to watch more than once. Critically acclaimed films can often deliver powerful messages through tragic circumstances while other remarkable horror movies can provide shocking scenes that some may find too disturbing to return to for multiple viewings. Whatever the case may be, most people have finished watching an overwhelming film with appreciation for the viewing experience but also with the conviction that they will never watch that movie again.

Movies that push the boundaries of the audience are typically meant to provide the viewer with the onscreen shock or devastation that they have never seen before. With enough intention and purpose behind the unsettling circumstances of any movie’s plot, scenes that can be difficult to stomach can be justified for provoking such extreme emotional reactions. Every engagement between a viewer and a film is based on the trust that the narrative will deliver a satisfying or revelatory ending. With this in mind, even the most brutal scenes can be worth sitting through for the sake of the story, but that doesn’t guarantee that viewers will be rushing to watch it again.

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10 Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Casey Affleck on a boat in Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the Sea was nominated for six Academy Awards despite being one of the most devastating stories told in recent film history. Without giving anything away, the haunted protagonist Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) faces one of the worst personal tragedies imaginable and is forever lost in the ashes of that horrible event. Manchester by the Sea is a poignant film about redemption and acts as a visual meditation on pain from grief that is worn like a jacket that cannot be taken off.

9 Requiem For A Dream (2000)

Requiem For A Dream

Requiem For a Dream started out as a cult classic upon release and has solidified itself as a true classic of cinema over two decades later. Darren Aronofsky’s stylized portrait of additions and drug-induced euphoria creates an erratic and unsettling visual atmosphere that pervades and festers into an explosive climax by the strange movie’s end. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition of beautiful filmmaking contrasted with terrifying narrative and characters (Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly) whose downward spirals are as awfully compelling as a house on fire.

8 Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar Pelle with Dani

Ari Aster’s wonderfully bizarre sophomore film Midsommar is unforgiving in its depiction of physical and psychological violence. Set entirely in the midst of a sunny day that seems to never end, which sounds like a nightmare in itself, Midsommar builds in terror with gradually increased isolated events that cross the line of normalcy and comfort, only to eventually fly off the rails entirely and leave the audience holding on for life. Midsommar is such a unique horror movie that it should be watched more than once but is ultimately just too wild to sit through twice.

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7 The Revenant (2015)

Leonardo DiCaprio carrying someone in The Revenant

The Revenant was another dark and grisly Academy Award favorite, winning three of its staggering twelve total Oscar nominations. The film is wonderfully shot with the impression that it’s composed entirely in one take due to meticulously choreographed camera movements and nearly undetectable editing cuts. The Revenant is a very compelling yet dense film that certainly could be watched more than once, however, its immersive filming style places the audience right in front of some violent and frankly gross scenes that some people might look away from.

6 The Whale (2022)

Brendan Fraser crying in The Whale

The Whale pulls on the heartstrings like few other films in recent film history have with its devastating tale and Brendan Fraser’s incredible performance. Another brutal film from the mind of Darren Aronofsky, The Whale undeniably intends to crush its audience under the weight of the emotional trauma and pent-up guilt experienced by Fraser’s disregarded protagonist Charlie. The film explores very deep and sentimental issues that often go overlooked or unheard in a public forum, presenting an authentic portrayal of the inescapable flaws found in common human nature.

5 Schindler’s List (1993)

Liam Neeson as Oskar looking sad at a watch in Schindlers List.

Schindler’s List is arguably one of the most historically significant films ever made and is often shown in schools as a comprehensive depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. Spielberg’s brilliant use of story brings these horrors to the forefront in a way that every viewer can feel palpably as they watch the film. Schindler’s List is a testament to the acclaimed director’s mastery of the craft and the power that film as a medium can hold as a vessel for both entertainment and education.

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4 American History X (1998)

Edward Norton's character in a prison scene in American History X

American History X is another example of how intentional violence in film can be deeply disturbing yet foundational in a movie’s overarching themes and narrative. Edward Norton is brilliantly unrecognizable in his portrayal of a neo-Nazi whose marked and trapped by a life of violence, racism, and insidious hatred. American History X begins as a story of redemption whose narrative is ultimately overthrown by the concepts of brutal violence and hatred themselves, which act as the underlying motivational force behind nearly everything Noron’s character does.

3 Uncut Gems (2019)

Adam Sandler's characters showing a Furby jewelry in Uncut Gems

Watching Uncut Gems feels like riding a roller coaster for two hours and fifteen minutes that hardly lets up from its frantic and overlapping pace. The Safdie Brothers created an impressive cinematic atmosphere that is filled with the heightened energy of New York City but often feels overwhelming and somewhat rooted in paranoia. Adam Sandler’s atypical dramatic role as the never-say-never jeweler Howard Ratner is infectious in a way that feels bad for one’s health, as he takes extraordinary gambles that eventually pile up and cave in on him.

2 Hereditary (2018)

An injured Alex Wolff in Hereditary

With three great off-the-rails horror movies under his belt, it’s safe to say that Ari Aster is an auteur of modern horror with his trademark diversions into realms of the absurd, the paranormal, and the psychologically unhinged. Hereditary is beloved by horror fans who definitely watch this movie multiple times but the casual moviegoer will likely find this film too outrageously terrifying to return to. With such riveting intrigue that is rare even in the greatest horror films, Hereditary is certainly a modern marvel that pulls you in only to make you wish for escape immediately after.

1 Come and See (1985)

Flyora looking horrified in Come and See

Often referred to as one of the most disturbing war movies ever made, Come and See is not for the faint of heart. The film is incredibly thoughtful and overwhelming in its portrayal of the horrors of war, which will make most viewers glad that they survived it but not eager to watch it ever again. Another terrifying window into the world of the Holocaust, Come and See authentically depicts the Nazi objective to annihilate an outer region of Russia known as Byelorussia, known as the independent nation Belarus today. It’s a significant but incredibly difficult film that is one of the best gut-wrenching movies you’ll only want to watch once.