Self-mutilation on film - What a carve-up!

In 127 Hours, a climber hacks his arm off with a knife. Strong stuff? Yes, but it's only the latest entry in cinema's rich history of self-mutilation, argues Kaleem Aftab

Characters hacking away at their own body parts are becoming an increasingly prevalent phenomenon on the silver screen. Much of the talk about Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, starring James Franco, has centred on the gruesome moments that show the protagonist Aron Ralston cutting off his own arm to free himself after he gets trapped under a boulder.

The rock has trapped the mountain climber in a ravine, and the decision to cut comes after five days of deliberation. The moment is made all the more excruciating by the fact that the blade he has to use to cut off his own arm is blunt.

It's hard to watch, but nonetheless it's still surprising that audience-members have fainted at screenings, given how common it is to see characters in situation where they are forced to chop off a limb. It's practically become a cliché of the horror genre.

In Saw, the first episode of the hugely successful franchise, two unsuspecting victims find themselves chained at their ankles. They discover that hacksaws have also been left in the room, and initially they try to free themselves from their shackles by sawing through the metal. When they discover that this is futile, they realise that the only way they can free themselves is by using the hacksaw to cut through their bones. Facing certain death, Cary Elwes's Dr Lawrence Gordon starts sawing off his own foot.

Often, a character will chop off his arm because it's been infected or possessed by some force or other. There is a hand-over-your-eyes moment in the alien invasion sci-fi thriller District 9, when the clueless bureaucrat Wikus starts to develop prawn-like claws in the style of the aliens that have been quarantined in South Africa. So he decides to chop his own arm off, rather than transform into an alien.

In Evil Dead 2, self-mutilation is played for laughs. Part of the comic gold is down to Bruce Campbell's superb performance. Fighting with himself after a demonic spirit possesses his hand – a battle that involves plates being smashed, hair being pulled and comic somersaults – Campbell finally picks up a chainsaw and takes it to his own arm while screaming, "Look who's laughing now", as blood pours over his face.

Literally beating yourself up is a central component of Fight Club. The David Fincher film revolves around a bare-knuckle fighting club in which characters take pleasure in being beaten to a pulp. The reveal is that Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the nameless narrator (Edward Norton) are one and the same, meaning that the narrator has been smashing himself to pieces throughout the picture until he eventually shoots himself through the mouth. It's important in these self-harm moments that the characters don't kill themselves.

There are a plethora of films, from Girl, Interrupted to Thirteen, that involve characters (usually female) hating themselves to the extent that they will cut themselves. Black Swan is the latest to join the long list: in Darren Aronofsky's ballet film, Natalie Portman's dancer repeatedly looks into the mirror and tries to work out ways to hide her latest scars.

But cutting off arms and legs seems mild compared to the number of films that involve characters cutting off their own genitals. The most graphic case is surely Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays an unhappy wife who uses a pair of scissors to cut off her own genitalia. When the film was released uncut in Britain, the BBFC insisted that the poster carry the warning, "Contains strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation."

Von Trier was following in the footsteps of Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers and Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. In Cries and Whispers, Karin is in a loveless marriage with a diplomat. After yet another mundane dinner party, Karin takes a broken wine glass and mutters, "It's all a pack of lies", before striking herself in the genitals in front of her husband. Smearing blood over her own face, she laughs in triumph. The piece of glass is shown sitting on a silver tray in her bedroom. Equally difficult are the scenes of self-mutilation in Haneke's The Piano Teacher, in which Isabelle Huppert delivers a tour-de-force performance.

Whether it's to save their own lives as a necessity caused by a drastic situation, an act prompted by self-hate or depression, or even done for laughs, it seems that the people most likely to harm the principal protagonists in movies these days are themselves.



Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England