Soul-Stirring Cinema: 17 Characters That Left Viewers Speechless

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences (2016)

A good movie entertains you. A great movie makes you feel. Sometimes the emotions are strong: fear, sorrow, psychological pain. With some films, you can’t handle that depth of emotion more than once, so most of us have a list of movies we will never watch again. 

Other films are so good that they can be viewed over and over. The combination of brilliant character development and powerful performances instills a sense of awe or soul-stirring empathy. Today, we take a look at 17 of those characters. 

1. Rose Lee Maxson  Fences (2016)

Fences (2016) Viola Davis
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

As Rose Lee Maxson, Viola Davis brought a level of both vulnerability and intense strength. Here, she lives through decades of a philandering, but inescapably charismatic husband as she herself is subsumed by his energy and its consequences. There's incredible source material here, but it's Davis that makes it all the more moving. 

2. Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years A Slave Chiwetel Ejiofor
Image Credit: Summit Entertainment.

In every respect, 12 Years a Slave is an emotionally taxing film. A dramatic of recounting of a formerly free Black man's life after being thrusted into slavery, it's a movie that embeds the horrors of racism in a powerfully visceral way, and Chiwetel Ejiofor's quiet, intense resolve helps pull it all together. 

3. Dwayne Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine Paul Dano
Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A dysfunctional family hits the road so its youngest, Olive (Abigail Breslin), can compete in a child beauty pageant. Her older brother, Dwayne, is a big Nietzsche fan and has taken a vow of silence until he can become a fighter pilot. He and his father ultimately realize that Olive is sure to fail in the pageant due to the other contestants being poised, pretty princesses and the two of them try to keep her from entering.

Well, that didn’t work. But the  trip, though bizarre and sometimes brutal, teaches Dwayne a little about family. And what a family! The cast includes Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Bryan Cranston, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Alan Arkin. 

4. Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea Casey Affleck
Image Credit: Claire Folger-Amazon Studios.

Casey Affleck won an Oscar for his portrayal of a depressed and grief-destroyed man who reluctantly becomes the legal guardian of a teenage relative. The drama is strong with this one: dysfunctional families, PTSD, guilt, and unasked-for responsibilities that must be faced. A forum member said the movie is unrelenting in a good way because it doesn’t avoid the complex parts of life.

5. Keller Dover in Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners Hugh Jackman
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Hugh Jackman plays the father of a girl who went missing with her friend. Convinced that the police aren’t doing enough to find the culprit, he takes the law into his own hands. Jackman helps audiences understand how deeply a father can love a child and how far he will go to get her back. That doesn’t make the film any easier to watch, especially since some viewers might find themselves identifying with Keller’s vigilantism.

6. Lucas in The Hunt (2012)

The Hunt Mads Mikkelsen
Image Credit: Nordisk Film.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) is a child-care worker whose life turns upside down when he’s falsely accused of sexual abuse. Although he’s been cleared, he still has to deal with the ongoing suspicions of his small town.

One cinephile was riveted by a supermarket scene where residents throw things at Lucas. Yet he has no choice but to return – it’s the only place he can get groceries. Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for this painful performance.

7. David Boyle in Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River Tim Robbins
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Tim Robbins brings the pain as Dave, a Boston blue-collar worker forever haunted by childhood sexual assault. When a local girl is murdered, and Dave comes home bloodied, it’s evident what has happened, right? Evident to the family, anyway, who want to administer a little street justice.

Clint Eastwood directs a stellar cast, including Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Laurence Fishburne.

8. Selma Ježková in Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dancer in the Dark Björk
Image Credit: Fine Line Features.

Icelandic singer Björk plays a single mom slowly losing her vision and daydreaming about musicals while at her factory job. She’ll do anything to keep working because she’s also saving for an operation that will keep her son from losing his eyesight.

Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Melancholia, Antichrist) directs this tragic tale with a superb supporting cast that includes Peter Stormare, Catherine Deneuve, Joel Gray, and David Morse. One cinephile said that the film absolutely broke her heart, and after 15 years, she is still unable to watch it again.

9. John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man John Hurt
Image Credit: Columbia-EMI-Warner Distributors.

David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks) based this drama on the real-life story of a man forced into a 19th-century London freak show due to physical deformities. Merrick’s humanity shines through the pounds of prosthetics and makeup worn by actor John Hurt. In particular, viewers are often brought to tears when Merrick says he must have been “a great disappointment” to his mother.  

10. Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone (1983)

The Dead Zone Christopher Walken
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Dead Ringers, The Fly) directs this thriller, considered one of the best film adaptations of any Stephen King novel. Christopher Walken plays Johnny, a New England teacher in a severe auto accident.

After years in a coma, he wakes up with psychic abilities. Johnny foresees a megalomaniacal political candidate being elected president and sending nuclear weapons against the Russians. Is he losing his mind, or is this his chance to save the world?

11. Annie Graham in Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary Toni Collette
Image Credit: A24.

Toni Collette’s performance is raw and horrifying, a perfect fit for this psychological/supernatural horror film. After Annie’s mother dies, bizarre and terrifying things happen to the family. The unrelenting fear and growing violence are almost unbearable as audiences watch the family’s world disintegrate.

Rolling Stone said this is “the performance of (Collette’s) career…Annie’s breakdown in flesh and spirit (shatters) what’s left of our nerves.” One forum member said the aftermath of a particularly shocking scene fairly early in the movie left them genuinely speechless – yet they acknowledge the scene was absolute film perfection.  

12. David Drayton in The Mist (2007)

The Mist (2007)
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Based on a Stephen King novella, The Mist is more than a horror film: It’s a story of what people will do to survive and protect their loved ones. David, an artist, takes his son to the supermarket. Ordinary, right?

Not this time: The market and the entire town are blanketed by a thick mist full of terrifying creatures. Some get in and cause havoc, but the absolute horror occurs after David and several others can drive away from the scene. A film fan described the main character’s pain as absolutely unbearable.

13. Carrie White in Carrie (1976)

Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976)
Image Credit: United Artists.

A very young Sissy Spacek portrays Carrie White, the abused teen daughter of a hyper-religious woman (Piper Laurie). After a traumatic bullying at school, Carrie’s telekinetic abilities are unleashed. A malicious fellow student thwarts another girl’s attempt to help Carrie.

The wallflowers were the lucky ones that year because they didn’t go to the prom. The school, and the town, would never be the same.

14. The Mother in Mother! (2017)

Mother! Jennifer Lawrence
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Jennifer Lawrence goes through all sorts of torment in this psychological horror film, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Whale). She plays a young wife whose pastoral life is wrecked by strangers who arrive and a cult that develops around her poet husband.

Controversial for its religious imagery and a stomach-turning scene involving the death of a newborn, Mother! is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people still can’t get the sound effects out of their heads.

15. Karl Childers in Sling Blade (1996)

Sling Blade Blly Bob Thornton
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

In this stunning role, Billy Bob Thornton shows that sometimes a murderer has his reasons. He plays a developmentally disabled man hospitalized for decades after killing two people. Released from the psychiatric ward, Karl makes a few friends and seems to be doing well. Until he isn’t.

Karl’s backstory is revealed a little at a time, and although we know how this story will end, we can’t look away. One movie buff said they watched the film years ago, and the character still haunts them.

16. Anthony in The Father (2020)

The Father Anthony Hopkins
Image Credit: UGC Distribution.

Anthony Hopkins earned an Academy Award for his performance as a Welsh man slowly losing his memories to dementia. His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), informs him she is moving to Paris for her new love. Or does she? Anthony is having trouble keeping names and faces straight – and he brings the viewers along for the ride since the film is told from his point of view.

This aspect gives watchers a glimpse of what dementia must feel like, according to a forum member whose mother-in-law has the disease. 

17. Dominic Kearney in The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

The Banshees of Inisherin Barry Keoghan
Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures.

Barry Keoghan won a BAFTA award and was nominated for an Oscar for portraying a troubled young man in 1920s rural Ireland. Abused by his father and socially awkward, he’s too often the butt of jokes in his village. Keoghan has said that roles like this will take viewers out of their comfort zone.