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5 Movies about Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, domestic violence is defined as behaviors that physically harm, provoke fear, prevent a person from doing what they want, and force them to do things that they don’t want to do. Emotional abuse, sexual violence, and threats all fall under the umbrella of domestic violence.

While women are not the only ones who endure domestic violence, almost ⅓ of women worldwide who report being in a relationship at some point have experienced it. In households where there are children, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports a 45-60% chance that child abuse is occurring in tandem with violence against a partner. Children also witness a high percentage of assaults and the effects are devastating. Considering how common domestic violence is, it makes sense that many filmmakers would tackle the subject. There’s a fine line between bringing attention to the issues and exploiting it. Here are five movies that wrestle with domestic violence:

A Vigilante (2019)

The “vigilante” of this film is Sadie, played by Olivia Wilde. A domestic abuse survivor, Sadie now spends her time finding and punishing abusers. At the same time, she’s attempting to track down her own abuser, her ex-husband. “A Vigilante” is a revenge fantasy, but unlike many in its genre, the world of the movie is realistic and grounded. It’s our world, where Sadie can find more than a few abusers living their lives free and easy. Olivia Wilde’s performance is powerful and painful. Though her character takes action in a way that’s truly cinematic, the emotions driving them still feel real, and the movie focuses on her inner life just as much as the violence.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

Based on Stephen’s King book of the same name, “Gerald’s Game” might seem like an odd movie to include on this list. However, this film isn’t about supernatural horrors or monsters. The real villains in this story are very human and very close to Jessie, the movie’s heroine. One of them, her husband Gerald, actually dies very early in the film. He suffers a heart attack after cuffing Jessie to their bed and attempting to force a rape fantasy on her. She can’t free herself, and Gerald appears in her delusions, taunting her. The other villain emerges from deep within Jessie’s memories as she realizes the effects that one day from her childhood has had on her whole life.

For the vast majority of the film, Jessie is trapped, both physically and in her thoughts. When she begins to unravel her past, however, she figures out how to escape her present. The film is much more than just a tense thriller. It’s a powerful metaphor of the effects of domestic violence and abuse, no matter how long ago it happened or how much it’s repressed.

Berlin Syndrome (2017)

Clare meets Andi while in Germany and they enjoy a one-night stand. However, the next morning, Andi is gone and he’s locked Clare in his apartment. At first she thinks it might be an accident, but it becomes clear that he intends to keep her there forever. Like “Gerald’s Game,” the plot of this film is not based in realism. It serves as a metaphor for what domestic violence can look like. For many people, the idea of leaving an abusive partner is like asking Clare, who is literally locked in Andi’s apartment, to just leave. While her walls are physical, the psychological walls are just as real for those enduring domestic violence.

The film does take time to dig into the psychological aspects of Clare’s situation, as well, which get complex. While trapped and tormented by Andi, Clare actually begins to adjust to her new “life.” She starts to play the role of a dutiful partner, cooking, cleaning, and comforting her abuser. However, as it goes with domestic violence, Clare’s changed behavior isn’t enough for Andi and he continues the abuse. “The Berlin Syndrome” does an apt job at depicting both abuser and survivor, and why “just leaving” isn’t a simple decision.

Dangerous Intentions (1995)

The oldest movie on this list, “Dangerous Intentions” originally aired on CBS. The issue of domestic violence (and that specific term) first started being discussed in the 1970’s, so in 1995, it was still a fairly recent subject matter for movies. “Dangerous Intentions” is (allegedly) based on a true story and follows a woman dealing with an abusive husband, parents who don’t believe her, and a legal system that won’t protect her. This is an interesting movie to watch because it is a bit older, but it also portrays problems that still happen today, like victim-blaming.

Private Violence (2014)

While the stats on domestic abuse are overwhelming, often the best way to communicate its effects is through intimate portraits. This 2014 documentary zeroes in on a justice advocate and the domestic abuse survivor she’s representing. Despite the fact that Deanna’s husband kidnapped her (along with their daughter) and beat her so badly that the doctors were horrified, he was not immediately arrested. The film follows Deanna’s case, which is taken up by advocate Kit Gruelle, who herself is a survivor of domestic violence. “Private Violence” shows just how challenging and complex navigating the legal system can be.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.