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6 Most Harrowing Movies About Missing Children

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Jake Gyllenhaal in a car talking to Hugh Jackman in Prisoners.

Children are our future and hope and often considered innocent and pure, so when these children are put in harm’s way, the result is bound to have a particularly emotional impact on the audience and undoubtedly makes for an intensely harrowing viewing experience. The danger of losing a child is inherently one of humankind’s biggest fears (especially for actual parents, for whom it is quite possibly their biggest nightmare). Not only that, it is a very real and credible fear as, per ICMEC, millions of children do go missing every year, a statistic highlighted by the fact a number of these films are based on actual events.

With this being said, it’s obvious that film studios were bound to pick up on this, and the missing child trope is not uncommon, with numerous films having been put out over the years, dealing with the issue to varying levels of effectiveness. Below, we take a look at six of the greatest and most harrowing movies that are about missing children.

When people think of movies about ‘gaslighting’ (a colloquialism, loosely defined as making someone question their own reality), a few movies instantly spring to mind. There’s the 1944 movie Gaslight

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, in which the term originated, Girl on a Train, Flightplan, and then there’s Changeling. Loosely based around real life events, Changeling stars Angelina Jolie, at the top of her game, as a woman who should be over the moon at being reunited with her missing son, only something is amiss – she’s certain it’s not her son but an imposter. Set in the 1920s, the movie is the heart-rending story of her battle to be heard in an era where political corruption was rife, women barely had a voice, and mental health was grossly misunderstood. Fantastic direction from Clint Eastwood, coupled with Jolie’s intense and emotional performance, makes for a truly compelling viewing experience.

Related: Best Movies About Parenthood, Ranked

Starring Carol Lynley as the distraught mother of the titular missing child, Bunny Lake is Missing is an intriguing mystery movie, involving strong psychological elements, as, like Changeling, the mother’s sanity and word is questioned. Hollywood icon Laurence Olivier also stars as the investigating police officer as he tries to get to the bottom of the inexplicable case. With twists and turns a plenty, the movie — which at the time was released to little fanfare, but has later been positively reappraised — keeps viewers at the edge of their seats, never quite knowing what to expect. The shocking finale is enough to rightfully land the movie on this list. It’s also notable featuring an appearance from the legendary UK rock band, The Zombies.

2013’s Prisoners is a movie that aims to stir up all sorts of emotions and moral quandaries regarding the lengths a child’s loved ones are willing to go in order to secure their safe return. Without giving too much away about the plot, Prisoners focuses on two fathers, played by Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, who hold an intellectually disabled man (Paul Dano) captive as they suspect him to be involved in their children’s disappearance. The following two hours makes for grim and sometimes nearly unwatchable viewing as the two desperately try to convince the suspect of giving them information in the desperate bid to find their daughters. The emotional rollercoaster was a hit with fans and critics alike, grossing over $120 million at the box office and landing on many critics’ end of year top ten lists.

Differing slightly to many of the films on this list, Room focuses much more on the missing person than it does on those trying to find them. In this case, the center of attention is a young woman who has been held captive in a small room for seven years, since she was a child, and now has a small child of her own with her, at the hands of her captor. Tense, emotional, and disturbing, the claustrophobic nature of the film showcases Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s fantastic acting abilities as the prisoners who are forced to survive and emotionally deal with that the harrowing circumstance they must navigate on a daily basis. This powerful and unflinching tale of survival and hope received universal acclaim from critics with praise, in particular, being directed towards the acting (indeed, Brie Larson won an Academy Award) as well as its direction, atmosphere, and realism. Highly evocative and compelling, Room was not only one of the most celebrated movies at the time of its release, but also of the entire decade and is still just as impactful to watch as it was back in 2015.

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