Being nihilistic may often be ascribed to disassociated teenagers, but the philosophical concept popularised by Ivan Turgenev can be found throughout popular art, literature, music and cinema. Suggesting that life is inherently meaningless, nihilism may sound like something of a dismal topic, yet it is a common misconception that it is an overwhelmingly depressing subject, with the philosophy often providing optimistic answers about life on earth.
Though the concept has inspired filmmakers like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Lars Von Trier to create such works as Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom and Dancer In The Dark, two movies known for their bleak stories, on the other hand, nihilism also plays a significant part in a number of optimistic features, appearing throughout the filmography of the American independent artist Harmony Korine.
In our list of the ten best movies that explore nihilism, we’ve put together a list of movies that tackle the heavy philosophical topic in a number of different ways, including films that skirt around the topic as well as ones that take it one with brute force. Featuring a collection of iconic filmmakers, including Michael Haneke, Roy Andersson, Takeshi Kitano, Mike Leigh, and the Coen brothers, it’s clear that nihilism plays a significant role in the artistic mind.
Take a trip through our picks below and explore ten movies that present meaninglessness with a great deal of eloquence.
The 10 best movies that explore nihilism:
10. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (Daniels, 2022)
When you’re exposed to each and every one of your simultaneous selves, each speeding along in separate universes, you may call into question the purpose of your own existence. This is exactly what happens in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s beloved Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, a film that juggles concepts of existentialism and nihilism, providing a more optimistic outlook on the view that life is inherently meaningless.
Pushed by the protagonist’s daughter, who believes that life is inherently pointless, the whole movie is about a mother who seeks to form a connection with her daughter by experiencing everything, everywhere, all at once. What she discovers is that life is indeed meaningless, but it’s the love and relationships we create that give it purpose.
9. Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)
On completely the other end of the spectrum to Daniels’ Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s horrifying drama Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, which tells the story of fascists who round up nine adolescent boys and girls to put them through 120 days of physical, mental, and sexual torture. Here, the darkest side of nihilism is reached, with Pasolini expressing the inhumane acts of the establishment with reserved coldness.
Influenced by the Dante Alighieri poem Divine Comedy, Salò is by no means an easy watch, even if it does intelligently break down the hierarchical nihilism that trickled down during 1940s Italian fascism.
8. The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine, 2019)
We sandwiched Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom between Everything, Everywhere, All at Once and The Beach Bum for a reason, with Daniels and Korine’s movies being the most optimistic on our list. Telling the story of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a struggling writer living a hedonistic life of drugs and sex, Korine’s film presents a film about an artist whose nihilistic worldview supercharges his poetry.
Silly and absurd, Korine frolics in the vibrancy of his own concept, using Moondoog as a mouthpiece for his own opinion of the world. As the protagonist utters towards the end of the film: “I just wanna have a good time, until this shit’s over, man. This life’s a fucking rodeo, and I’m gonna suck the nectar and fucking raw dog it till the wheels come off”.
7. The Seventh Continent (Michael Haneke, 1989)
The films of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke have long been known for their somewhat pessimistic outlook on life, with the 1989 movie The Seventh Continent being a classic example of this. Chronicling three years in the life of a middle-class family caught up in the monotony of their daily routines, each individual in the peculiar group appears emotionally disconnected yet shares the dream to escape to Australia, the seventh continent.
Once the film’s climax rolls around, you come to realise that the whole film was really one big comment on nihilism, making the brutal concluding scene pretty tough to make it through, to say the least.
6. About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, 2019)
From one of the most depressing films on this list to one of the most uplifting, Roy Andersson’s nihilistic answer to the meaning of life in 2019s About Endlessness is pure bliss. Just like his ‘Living trilogy’, About Endlessness is somewhat plotless, presenting a mosaic of human life in all its beauty, cruelty and splendour, becoming a quiet and meditative exploration of finding purpose in life’s meaninglessness.
Effortlessly absorbing, losing no pace as it moves from one carefully crafted vignette to the next, Andersson’s film is an ode to the quiet triumphs of life’s smallest moments, offering hope to nihilistic feelings of despair.
5. Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, 1993)
Known as one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of all time, largely thanks to his subversive takes on the Yakuza genre, Takeshi Kitano released Sonatine, one of his many masterpieces, in 1993. Telling the story of several yakuza who are sent to Okinawa to help end a gang war and then moved onto a secluded beach to lay low for a while, Kitano’s movie is a bizarre piece of nihilistic Yakuza greatness.
Using several moments of surrealism, the film juggles the philosophical concept, asking about the purpose of such criminals who each question their livelihoods as they kill time in Kitano’s gorgeous slacker flick.
4. Dancer In The Dark (Lars Von Trier, 2000)
Winning the Palme d’Or in 2000, Lars Von Trier’s devastating musical drama, starring singer Björk, is one of the Danish filmmaker’s best films. One of cinema’s few arthouse musicals, von Trier’s film is an imaginative, if excruciating, delight following an Eastern European girl who travels to the USA with her son, expecting the country to be like a Hollywood film whilst hoping to save her son from a hereditary eye condition.
Dancer in the Dark’s exhilarating musical sequences elevates the film into a realm of magical realism, still, its nihilistic outlook on life makes the whole film more than a little bleak.
3. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
The Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name is a film about transition and nihilism, among many other themes. Telling the story of young psychopath Anton Chigurh, the antithesis of the elderly, traditional Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who operate in two entirely different realities; one in the past of American heritage and one representing the modern winds of change.
Representing the change in cinema from traditional Hollywood to the very different landscape of 21st-century cinema, the film is a seminal piece of modern filmmaking that brings the shift in generational attitudes into focus to such an extent that its final climactic scene is rather nihilistic.
2. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
We could’ve included the entire filmography of Hungarian director Béla Tarr on this list, but for our money, Werckmeister Harmonies is his greatest exploration of nihilism. A complex monochrome fable, Tarr’s story follows a mysterious circus, which includes a giant whale, that excites a small Hungarian town upon its arrival only to prompt rebellion when a promised act fails to perform.
Discussing the nihilistic intentions of political hierarchies and the magnetic influence they have over the masses, Werckmeister Harmonies is an enchanting movie encrusted with complexity that refuses to simply hand over its intentions.
1. Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
The films of British filmmaker Mike Leigh concern themselves with the family dynamic, with mothers, fathers, daughters and friends contending with finding their identity in the complexity of the modern world. None of Leigh’s films is as complicated and nihilistic as Naked, however, a prophetic movie with a damning opinion of contemporary Britain, following the barking energy of Johnny, a homeless character who travels to London to seek solace.
Like the ghost of the coming century, Johnny stalks the streets of London, interacting with everyone he can as he laments the modern world. Crafting the dialogue with the help of screenwriter Mike Leigh, actor David Thewlis reels off impressive nihilistic monologues, spouting: “That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored…now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as they’re new”.
Complex and almost apocalyptic, Leigh’s film is layered with careful subtext, which makes his movie one of the great nihilistic classics.