As much as movie-goers love an old-fashioned romantic comedy with a happy ending, movie couples with a deteriorating relationship or unconventional means of professing love always fancy a handful of audiences. Be it exceptionally attractive romantic pairings or ignoring red flags with passionate demonstrations of love, dysfunctional movie couples highlight human beings’ innate flaws. Toxic love movies like these stand opposed to films with an optimistic outlook on the affair of love: many destructive relationships portrayed on-screen give audiences an adrenaline rush while proving love does not always win.
Just as there are always several viewers looking for the ideal rom-com for the perfect date night, there’s likely also no shortage of audiences searching for movies about toxic relationships that highlight the very real flaws of love and romance. The best movies about dysfunctional relationships are often hard-hitting and don’t pull any punches when it comes to raw and heartbreaking depictions of messy toxic love.
15 ‘Birds Without Names’ (2017)
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Unable to keep herself away from her abusive ex-lover, Towako (Yu Aoi) engages in hollow flings while living idly with a man fifteen years her senior, Jinji (Sadao Abe), who idolizes her. Towako’s life takes an unexpected turn when she finds out her toxic ex-lover has gone missing five years ago, and she suspects Jinji to be the one responsible. Trying to prove this, however, proves to be dangerous territory.
Holding on to an idealized version of romance is not always the healthiest, as some toxic love movies show. While keeping viewers at the edge of their seats regarding the real culprit, Birds Without Names is a cryptic gritty Japanese mystery thriller that provides an insight into victims of abusive relationships, which plays out like a self-punishment cycle. While it loses some of its steam halfway through due to some pacing issues and questionable narrative choices, it still provides an insightful and worthwhile viewing experience.
14 ‘Damage’ (1992)
Director: Louis Malle
An erotic psychological thriller directed by Louis Malle, Damage oversees the moral plummet of a respected British Politician Dr. Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons), when he becomes romantically involved with his son’s fiancé Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). Despite being in what seemed like a healthy marriage with Ingrid (Miranda Richardson), Stephen pursues the affair, which threatens to ruin his life and his family in the process.
As evident in one of the film’s quotes: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive,” the love between Fleming and Barton is societally forbidden while simultaneously interfering with the audiences’ moral compass. Damage offers guilt-ridden thrills and pulls no punches in assessing the aftermath of a toxic relationship with other loved ones. Its bigger swings often miss, but there are moments of raw emotionality that make this worth seeing.
13 ‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’ (1989)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Recently released from a mental health facility, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! sees an unstable but beguiling Ricky (Antonio Banderas) on a quest to kidnap Marina Osorio (Victoria Abril), a porn star-turned-actor with whom Ricky once shared intimacy. The B-movie actress doesn’t remember Ricky at all, as their affair took place during her years living with drug addiction. Determined to win her affection, he ties her up and compels her to recall.
One look at the title reminds one of Fifty Shades of Grey, but Pedro Almodovar‘s take on the pleasures and perils of Stockholm Syndrome offers so much more than just superficial acts of sadomasochism. Amidst all the racy sequences and twisted love story, the 1989 dark rom-com offers a few laughs considering the outrageousness of its plot. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! certainly hasn’t aged well, but there’s no denying it’s a clear depiction of toxic attraction.
12 ‘Bitter Moon’ (1992)
Director: Roman Polanski
What happens when love becomes too passionate and all so consuming? It crashes and burns, viscerally exemplified in Bitter Moon. The steamy romance drama movie centers around two couples, Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), who make up an ordinary couple, yet are bored by each other’s unadventurous spirits in the romance department. On the other hand, Oscar (Peter Coyote) and Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner)’s passionate love affair over the years has survived bouts of ruinous jealousy, undaunted sexual exploration, and countless reconciliations.
Bitter Moon suffers from an oscillating tone and a questionable script, veering into so-bad-it’s-good territory (with many just finding it plainly bad). Those who see it as a darkly comedic take on toxic romance will likely embrace Polanski’s vision here, as some critics have over the years. Either way, anyone who’s looking for an undeniably twisted relationship will certainly find that here.
11 ‘Heathers’ (1989)
Director: Michael Lehmann
Tired of John Hughes‘ oeuvre of upbeat high-school romantic comedy, Heathers is the go-to flick for some dark comedy and anti-Valentines Day vibes. After new student J.D. (Christian Slater) arrives, high school student Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) strays further from her popular clique. Tired of their mean-girl behavior, Veronica and J.D. confront clique leader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), only for the protagonist to realize that it was intentional on her boyfriend’s part. She soon becomes involved in a series of murders staged as teenage suicides.
Fans of Mean Girls and The Lost Boys will share a mutual admiration for the teen film due to its timeless quality and witty account of archetypal high school drama. Not to mention the unorthodox but undeniable attraction between the two lovebirds, J.D and Veronica, that redefines “toxic relationships.” Often hailed as one of the best dark comedies of all time, new viewers may not get what Heathers has to offer, but long-time fans have likely seen the classic more than once.
- Release Date
- March 31, 1989
- Michael Lehmann
10 ‘Possession’ (1981)
Director: Andrzej Żuławski
One of the horror genre’s underrated gems, Possession sees the relationship between an international spy Mark (Sam Neill), and his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), collapsing, with the latter being suspected of having an affair. The truth is not always in plain sight as she exhibits increasingly bizarre behaviors. When Mark hires a private investigator to figure out exactly what’s going on with Anna, he’s terrified to learn that she’s hiding a much larger, creepier, and potentially paranormal secret.
When audiences are least expecting, Possession transforms from a typical commentary on failing marriages into a body-horror film thematically engorging on the spectacle of a relationship turned sour and separation anxiety. This melding of genres and bold direction initially caused the 1981 film to be received with mixed to negative reviews, but it has since gained a cult following from horror fans who appreciate its uncompromising strangeness.
- Release Date
- May 25, 1981
- Andrzej Zulawski
- Isabelle Adjani , Sam Neill , Margit Carstensen , Heinz Bennent
- 124 minutes
9 ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994)
Director: Oliver Stone
Having the same relationship goals can lead to a stronger relationship: Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) indeed share the same goals — committing as much violence as humanly possible. No bad relationship movies list is complete without this duo. After a meet-cute moment played out like an ’80s family sitcom, Natural Born Killers follows the Knox couple as they go on a killing spree. Their serial murders eventually catch the eye of an equally dangerous detective and the mass media, which glorifies their malignant deeds.
The 1994 American crime film also garnered controversy with the media in real life for allegedly inspiring copycat crimes. It was also criticized for its ineffective satire that aimed but failed to comment on obsession with pop culture. However, Natural Born Killers‘ far-reaching influence and iconic duo have nevertheless earned it a place in the annals of film history. There’s no denying the dynamic chemistry between Mickey and Mallory, which clearly represent toxic relationships on the big screen.
Natural Born Killers
- Release Date
- August 26, 1994
- Oliver Stone
- 119 minutes
8 ‘Blue Valentine’ (2010)
Director: Derek Cianfrance
A defining film from the 2010s, Blue Valentine still has one of the most powerful displays of unhealthy relationships in movies. It’s centered on the failing relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), told from the earliest (and happiest) days of their romance to the more complicated and messier bitter end of their marriage. While they start out as a picture-perfect passionately in love pair, the cracks in their romance begin to show when the years highlight their individual flaws.
The heartbreaking journey highlights the highest highs and inevitable lows that even the most flawless connections can end up with. It’s a somber and honest exploration of the realistic problems that come with long-term relationships, and all the painful moments that can accompany them. It’s not an easy watch, but anyone looking for a heart-wrenching drama should know this is the hard-hitting pick.
- Release Date
- December 16, 2010
- Derek Cianfrance
7 ‘Decision to Leave’ (2022)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Director Park Chan-wook‘s latest thrilling mystery movie, Decision to Leave, follows a disillusioned detective with insomnia as he investigates the bizarre death of a man in the mountains. As he unravels the web of lies around the case, he finds himself falling for the victim’s enigmatic wife (who also happens to be the prime suspect). While uncovering the clues that led to her husband’s death, he fights the feelings that begin to get stronger as the unlikely duo spend more and more time together.
The atypical and toxic relationship that forms between Det. Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) and Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) plays out like a messed-up version of the will-they-won’t-they trope. Decision to Leave is a visually stunning and captivating film that explores how far the protagonists are willing to go as their twisted attraction and toxic love consume their lives and the course of the murder investigation. It’s a strangely beautiful yet unsettling film that underscores Park Chan-wook’s strengths and trademarks.
Decision to Leave
- Release Date
- May 23, 2022
- Park Chan-wook
- Tang Wei , Park Hae-il
6 ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ (2013)
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Blue is the Warmest Color is a classic coming-of-age romance movie that focuses on the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young and naive student who falls for the mature and cool Emma (Léa Seydoux). The film chronicles their relationship throughout the years, depicting the exciting period of getting to know each other, the moments of jealousy and confusion, and their bittersweet separation.
With a strong focus on sexuality and a raw depiction of the toxic dynamic that develops between the two leads, the French film was unsurprisingly controversial when it first premiered. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux play their parts with both nuance and intensity, showing a realistic relationship with an uneven distribution of power. Blue is the Warmest Color is now regarded as one of the best LGBTQ+ movies ever made, and is a must-see for viewers in the mood for heartache.
5 ‘Happy Together’ (1997)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
“Let’s start over again,” says Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) to Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) amidst their umpteen breakups and ensuing reconciliations. It’s an endless cycle, which soon changes after they move to Argentina from Hong Kong, longing for a change. Their, Lai meets another man named Chang (Chen Chang), which helps him realize that he could do better than Ho. In the meantime, Ho is having his own troubles with his newfound path, with both of them missing what once was and what they thought would be.
Under the meticulous direction of prominent Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, Happy Together turns a destructive same-sex relationship into a poignant tale of romantic redemption. By residing in an alienated land and surrounded by foreign people, the longing sense for the other is fortified to the extent that all hostilities and betrayals in the past are overlooked in exchange for familiar intimacy. This 1997 classic is a must-see tear-jerking Asian LGBTQ+ masterpiece.
4 ‘The Worst Person in the World’ (2021)
Director: Joachim Trier
A brilliant contemporary dramedy by Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World follows the ups and downs of Julie’s (Renate Reinsve) life. From the way she changes her mind about her studies to her many doubts about the men she meets, it covers years of her experiences. Julie navigates unsatisfying romantic relationships and struggles with her own identity, dreams, and goals throughout the film, which highlights the pressures women face and the universal frightening uncertainties people share.
More of a thought-provoking narrative about life rather than a romantic story, the movie invites audiences to confront their own insecurities and fears as Julie deals with her unhealthy relationships (with others and with herself). The Worst Person in the World is a fantastic and moving showcase of self-discovery and a philosophical approach to depicting life and love on the big screen. Anchoring the entire film is the flawed yet painfully relatable Julie, an imperfect and self-destructive protagonist who’s just trying to live her life the only way she knows how.
The Worst Person in the World
- Release Date
- July 8, 2021
- Joachim Trier
- Renate Reinsve , Anders Danielsen Lie , Herbert Nordrum
3 ‘Marriage Story’ (2019)
Director: Noah Baumbach
An essential example often cited alongside other movies with toxic relationships, Marriage Story revolves around the story of stage director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his actor wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), who are undergoing a divorce. Once a happy couple in love, the film delves into the reasons and events that led to their separation, as well as its impact on them, their friends, and their family. It also crucially highlights how their rough separation affects their son.
The award-winning Netflix Original movie is a heart-wrenching deep dive into real issues that married couples face. With stellar performances from Driver and Johansson, it’s impossible not to get swept up in Marriage Story‘s emotional narrative that manages to feel both unbelievably grand and profoundly intimate. For anyone who has gone through something similarly intense, it’s challenging to watch the screaming matches between the two, who were once, like many other couples who have divorced, helplessly in love.
- Release Date
- September 28, 2019
- Noah Baumbach
2 ‘Gone Girl’ (2014)
Director: David Fincher
Fan-favorite “Cool Girl” Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and her vengeance towards her cheating husband Nick (Ben Affleck) will not be sorely missed out. One of the most popular toxic romance movies, Gone Girl initially portrays Amy as a white suburban wife and perfect woman, gradually revealing her true intentions behind her alleged kidnapping while consolidating her status as one of cinema’s beloved anti-heroes. Meanwhile, Nick suffers from the media frenzy and police investigation that all point to him as the suspect in Amy’s kidnapping, thanks to a messy crime scene that indicates this is true.
Both Amy and Nick strive to be better versions of themselves, pretending to be people they are not. When they fail to keep up with their romanticized images, Amy and Nick seek to destroy each other in sickness and health. Gone Girl presents a delicious mix of crime and dysfunctional romance, with Amy and Nick’s twisted story being one that fans likely wish they could discover for the first time all over again.
- Release Date
- October 3, 2014
- 149 minutes
1 ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
Director: Michel Gondry
Jim Carrey sheds his comedic skin and metamorphoses into one of his best dramatic movie roles in the beloved indie darling Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carrey masterfully plays Joel, a man heartbroken knowing his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) underwent a procedure to have memories of him erased from hers. Joel decides to follow in her footsteps but soon regrets his decision when his love for Clementine remains strong.
Alongside the equally splendid and chameleon-like Winslet, the 2004 science-fiction romance drama is fueled by an unabashedly optimistic outlook on a pessimistic relationship. Among the best movies with toxic relationships, Joel and Clem are doomed to rekindle their flawed romance again and again due to being blindsided by their good memories. It’s a cult classic and a wonderfully grounded sci-fi masterpiece that shows love can persist in many forms, even when people don’t want them to.