10 Best Movies About Breaking the Social Contract

While few people consciously sign the social contract they live by, most of them adhere to its requirements. Humanity may try to give the impression that it is above the impulsive instinct and ingrained ritual that drives the behavior of other species, but in fact, society is just as defined by its unspoken rules as any other animal group. Everything is a dance, with correct and incorrect steps. The more missteps that occur, the more strained relationships become.


Film is the perfect medium through which to explore the collapse of the social contract and the chaos that results from it. Not only are the characters testing their boundaries within these contracts, but audiences are prompted to consider their limits as well. Whether this chaos is as contained as a domestic spat in a Manhattan apartment, as it is in Carnage, or as widespread and vicious as an apocalypse, as it is in Mother!, film is undeniably an incredible testing ground for what can happen when decorum dies.


10 ‘Mother!’ (2017)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 69%

Jennifer Lawrence as Mother in in mother! (2017)
Image via Paramount Pictures

Few things pull at the edges of one’s patience and tolerance like a poorly behaved house guest. A poet (Javier Bardem) and his wife, “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence), learn how catastrophic impoliteness can be when a string of uninvited house guests start pouring into their country home, which Mother is currently renovating. The guests immediately start taking Mother’s hospitality for granted as they break her rules, bicker among themselves, and damage the home she has been so tenderly building.

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is the ultimate representation of bad manners, acting as a metaphor for humanity inhabiting the planet and the relationship between man, God, and the earth that sits between. Deciphering the film and determining whether Mother! is too far-fetched is up for interpretation. However, what it does well is capture the stress, panic, and betrayal of having one’s boundaries violated in the most extreme manner. What begins as a simple disregard for Mother’s rule about sitting on the kitchen counter spirals into an apocalyptic hellscape that highlights the worst humanity has to offer.

Mother!

A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.

Release Date
September 13, 2017

Director
Darren Aronofsky

Rating
R

Runtime
115

Main Genre
Drama

Watch on Paramount+

9 ‘Nocturnal Animals’ (2016)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

Amy Adams sits at a desk and looks at a laptop in Nocturnal Animals
Image via Focus Features

Emotion plays a powerful role in the maintenance of a so-called civilized society. The delicate nuances of one’s feelings can have ripple effects throughout their life and relationships, a process dramatically drawn out in Nocturnal Animals. The film follows art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams), her estranged novelist ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the manuscript for Edward’s upcoming book titled “Nocturnal Animals,” a reference to a nickname he had for her when they were married. When Susan begins reading the manuscript, she is shocked to find that the book is a violent, cruel retelling of their relationship, which uses the assault and murder of the protagonist’s wife as a representation of Edward’s feelings of failure and inadequacy in his marriage to Susan.

Tom Ford’s film is an exploration of the fragility of ego and masculinity and the use of violence against women as a means of accessing the emotions of men. Despite Edward’s seemingly sweet nature, his divorce and subsequent manuscript reveal him as a man who centers himself on the misery of others and can only explore negative feelings towards his ex-wife through violent ideation. Nocturnal Animals reveals the thin layer that separates people’s true selves, the masks they present to the world, and the discomfort that arises when that layer splits.

Nocturnal Animals

A wealthy art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a symbolic revenge tale.

Release Date
December 9, 2016

Director
Tom Ford

Rating
R

Runtime
116 minutes

Main Genre
Drama

Watch on Netflix

8 ‘Midsommar’ (2019)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

A woman is comforted by her boyfriend as she cries
Image via A24

When studying a different culture and living as a guest in its community, where does one find the line between cultural differences and danger? Humans can tolerate, ignore, and deny a lot in the name of maintaining the social contract and the illusion of politeness, as demonstrated by the characters in Midsommar. Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his friends travel to rural Sweden to participate in a small community’s midsummer festival. Anthropology students Christian and his friend Josh (William Jackson Harper) are interested in using their experience for a college thesis and continuously ignore the escalating sense of danger that plagues Dani.

From Midsommar’s opening sequence, Ari Aster’s horror masterpiece explores the social contract in many forms, including how it can be manipulated to gaslight one’s partner and what it could look like if it were rewritten from top to bottom. While the customs and rituals of the cult community are confronting and vicious, the unity they share and the unwavering buy-in they demonstrate for their unconventional lifestyle almost outweigh the grim traditions that define the group.

Midsommar

Release Date
July 3, 2019

Director
Ari Aster

Rating
R

Runtime
140

Main Genre
Horror

Watch on Amazon

7 ‘Dogtooth’ (2009)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

A blindfolded woman in a swimsuit crawls through grass
Image via Verve Pictures

Before bursting into the English language arthouse scene with films like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and the Oscar-winning The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos released the film that would define his tone and voice for years to come: Dogtooth. The film follows Mother (Michelle Valley), Father (Christos Stergioglou), and their three adult children. While the parents leave the family home to work and participate in the real world, their children have never been outside the large home and have been raised in an alternate reality by their parents. They live believing that stray cats in the yard are dangerous predators that could kill them, and are convinced they have a brother they have never met living outside the house.

Lanthimos demonstrates an interest in the social and anti-social through much of his work, relying on the maintenance or destruction of social contracts to explore the human condition. In the case of Dogtooth, Lanthimos highlights the human need to have structure, regardless of its efficacy, and shows how much value one notices in the standard way of life once it is taken away.

Dogtooth

Release Date
June 1, 2009

Director
Yorgos Lanthimos

Cast
Christos Stergioglou , Michele Valley , Aggeliki Papoulia , Mary Tsoni , Hristos Passalis , Anna Kalaitzidou

Runtime
94

Main Genre
Drama

Rating
NONE

Watch on Amazon

6 ‘Shiva Baby’ (2020)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

 Rachel Sennott looks unimpressed while holding a bagel
Image via Utopia

Writer and director Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby speaks to generations of viewers who are regularly challenged with the social contract. College student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is the odd one out in her parents’ wide circle of Jewish family and friends. While in the throes of a quarter-life crisis, Danielle attends a Shiva for a family friend with her parents. Already seen as awkward, unsuccessful, and lacking direction, Danielle finds herself on the receiving end of prying questions, backhanded comments, and a generally chaotic environment. This is made all the worse by the arrival of a former colleague of Danielle’s father, who also happens to be her sugar daddy.

What is and isn’t considered socially appropriate or acceptable varies greatly between cultures and communities. In Danielle’s community, filters aren’t required of older relatives and family friends. The film explores the struggles of a main character who doesn’t fit the expected mold, Seligman opting to depict her heroine as messy and imperfect. Shiva Baby flips the script on manners and cringe-factor and explores an environment where bluntness and a lack of privacy are the norm.

Shiva Baby

Release Date
April 2, 2021

Director
Emma Seligman

Runtime
77 minutes

Main Genre
Comedy

Watch on Max

5 ‘Compliance’ (2012)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

Dreama Walker as Becky sitting in a chair in front of two people in Compliance
Image via Magnolia Pictures

While many would argue they are independent and free thinkers, Compliance, which is based on a true story, begs to differ. During her shift at a fast food restaurant, Becky (Dreama Walker) is called into the manager’s office. Her boss, Sandra (Ann Dowd), is on the phone with a police officer who has confirmed a report that Becky has stolen from a customer. Despite knowing Becky is an honest and hard-working young woman, Sandra can’t argue with the evidence the officer is laying out. At the officer’s instruction, Sandra conducts interviews with and searches of Becky that gradually become more invasive and sinister.

Compliance explores how far some will go to appease authority and follow the rules. Craig Zobel‘s film demonstrates that, under the right circumstances, an average person can be convinced to do things they would never normally do—things that society would find reprehensible and immoral—in the service of a higher power. The psychological thriller raises the question of how powerful the human need is to fit in, follow the rules, and obey.

Compliance

A normal Friday service at a fast food restaurant becomes interrupted by a police officer who claims an employee stole from a customer, but something more sinister is going on.

Release Date
January 21, 2012

Runtime
90 minutes

Main Genre
Crime

Rating
R

Watch on Max

4 ‘The Gift’ (2015)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

A man is standing from afar and observing a couple
Image via STX Entertainment

Pity and politeness can take a person very far and can even enable someone to slither their way beyond what is considered appropriate and into a sphere where dangerous behavior is written off as social ineptitude. In The Gift, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) relocate to Los Angeles after a rough patch in their marriage. Shortly after moving in, they run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon’s. While the couple is initially happy to catch up with an old acquaintance, Gordo soon begins dropping by unannounced, overstaying his welcome and giving the couple borderline inappropriate gifts. While his behavior isn’t explicitly dangerous, it is implicitly threatening.

The Gift, written and directed by Edgerton, spends much of its runtime flirting with the borders of what is and isn’t considered socially “strange.” The characters of Simon and Robyn each offer an insight into the possibilities of what this behavior could mean. Robyn is generous and patient, assuming Gordo is just awkward and lonely; however, Simon, in a masterful performance by Bateman, is not so kind. Edgerton’s skilled trifecta of acting, writing, and directing constantly has the audience wondering if Gordo is well-meaning and misunderstood or if he is a real threat.

The Gift

Release Date
July 30, 2015

Runtime
108

Rating
R

Watch on Amazon

3 ‘Triangle of Sadness’ (2022)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%

A guest and a captain stand askew as the yacht they are on tilts to one side
Image via NEON

The absurdity of class, hierarchy, wealth, and social rules is brought to bear in Triangle of Sadness, which sees these structures turned on their head. The film follows Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model struggling to find success, and his girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean), an influencer who finds the success Carl yearns for. With Yaya’s connections, the couple manage to land themselves a spot on a luxury yacht, where their fellow guests include a Russian oligarch and a wealthy English couple who made their fortune selling weapons of war. As the trip continues, tensions rise, and everything that can go wrong does.

The award-winning work of writer and director Ruben Östlund is marked by its interest in and examination of why people act the way they do and what occurs when they start acting in ways they shouldn’t. His absurdist and satirical leanings are a perfect fit for his special interest areas, and Triangle of Sadness is no exception. The honest and unflattering nature of social hierarchy and contract is laid bare when it is put under a microscope and rearranged in fantastical ways.

Triangle of Sadness

A fashion model celebrity couple join an eventful cruise for the super-rich.

Release Date
September 18, 2022

Director
Ruben Östlund

Cast
Thobias Thorwid , Harris Dickinson , Charlbi Dean , Vicki Berlin

Runtime
147 minutes

Main Genre
Comedy

Rating
R

Watch on Hulu

2 ‘Carnage’ (2011)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%

Kate Winslet collects the contents of her purse which are strewn across the floor
Image via Wild Bunch

Despite the chokehold that structure, rules, and hierarchy have on various cultures and communities, there is one group within society that is entirely immune to all this hoo-ha: children. Quirks, tantrums, and faux pas are all par for the course. Carnage explores the parental journey in excruciating and embarrassing detail. The film follows uptight couple Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) and free-spirited couple Penelope (Jodi Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) as they catch up to hash out a spat their sons have had on the playground.

The couples fluctuate between playing nice, getting catty, and losing all sense of social order during their meeting. Carnage forces its characters to confront their differences as the film unfolds, and tensions escalate all in one location: Penelope and Michael’s Manhattan apartment. As children stomp through the world, unburdened by any sense of shame or decorum, their parents must follow along, picking up the pieces and enduring the awkwardness wrought upon them by their offspring.

Carnage

Release Date
September 16, 2011

Director
Roman Polanski

Runtime
79

Main Genre
Comedy

Rating
R

Watch on YouTube

1 ‘Force Majeure’ (2014)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

A crowd of onlookers watch as an avalanche approaches them
Image via Tri Art Film

Can one person ever truly know another? And if they could, would they like what they saw? Force Majeure follows Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) as they enjoy a holiday with their two young children at a luxury resort in the French Alps. When an avalanche begins rolling down the hill toward them, panic ensues, and Tomas sprints away from the table, leaving his family behind. The avalanche eventually stops short, leaving everyone on the dining deck untouched; Tomas sheepishly returns to the table. Ebba reckons with the knowledge that in a fight-or-flight situation, Tomas would abandon her and their children without hesitation.

So many relationships balance delicately on the fundamental presumptions each person has of the other—in this case, the presumption that a father would sacrifice anything to protect his children. Tomas may be in the running for one of the worst movie parents, but his actions force an examination of if a relationship could recover from something as earth-shattering as this. The film’s title also poses audiences with the question: can Tomas (or anyone) be held accountable for his actions when faced with a fight-or-flight extraordinary event?

Force Majeure

Release Date
August 15, 2014

Director
Ruben Östlund

Cast
Johannes Kuhnke , Lisa Loven Kongsli , Clara Wettergren , Vincent Wettergren , Brady Corbet , Jakob Granqvist

Runtime
118

Main Genre
Drama

Rating
R

Watch on Hulu

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