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By David Young · May 8, 2023
“Write what you know,” they say, but you’ve hopefully learned by now that you can’t just write “what you know.” After all, the world we know is sometimes missing a few things key to the stories you’re trying to tell. We don’t live in fantasy or sci-fi worlds, and we’re not superheroes or action heroes most of the time. However, one thing we all know is the way the world works — the perception we call “reality.” That said, there are plenty of movies that make a person question reality — either trippy movies that share their story in an odd, discomforting way, or movies filled with the most unreal elements you can imagine. Whatever interests you, you’ll find that there are many mind-bending movies — some old and new. For better or worse, and you can learn from them as you read!
Read More: Top 10 Mind-Blowing Movie Plot Twists
Filled with frame narrative devices and the usual nonlinear storytelling that Christopher Nolan loves so much, Inception is already an iconic showcase of what mind-bending movies can look like. But just when you think that’s enough, you add in the subject matter — the realness of worlds within dreams — and the whole thing takes on an extra dash of flavor in that department. Even the ending will shatter your expectations about what reality looks like to a degree, so just prepare for that ahead of time.
Read More: Inception Sequence BreakdownDownload the script!
The mind of a character is a hard thing to navigate, but you can learn a lot about humanity when it’s done well. This is what happens in Tár, when the titular character Lydia Tár finds herself in the middle of a very real breakdown. When it’s all said and done, Lydia feels like the world is conspiring against her in this mind-bending movie. The question comes down to the way you see things after watching the film, but you certainly feel for her either way.Download the script!
Jacob’s Ladder is one of those mind-bending movies that likes the extreme. Its story is built around the question of reality for a man whose trauma and dissociation bring him torment as he continues to uncover answers he may or may not really want after all. If you were in his shoes, you’d be questioning reality too — and in this case, it’s not a pretty thing to go through.
Read More: Jacob’s Ladder: The Ending ExplainedDownload the script!
You can’t deny that central question at the heart of the narrative in The Matrix makes a compelling argument. After all, if machines ruled the world, they certainly couldn’t let us know about it. That would be asking for trouble. The Matrix, that simulation of our own “real lives,” would be the perfect way to keep us all occupied. Unless, of course, you need to be recruited as part of the resistance and are faced with the choice: Believe what you want to believe, or see how deep the rabbit hole goes. And as we’ve learned from the many installments of this series, the rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.
Read More: The Hero’s Journey Breakdown: The MatrixDownload the script!
A film that tackles the senses, Mulholland Drive is a David Lynch film — meaning it’s one of his many trippy movies, dedicated to being more of an art film than a story. That is cemented with several moments where characters fill different roles in a jarring switcheroo that combines past with present and dreams with reality. Romance and death wishes all come at once in the hurricane that is Mulholland Drive, and it unapologetically gives you whiplash once you watch it!Download the script!
You certainly want to think that the events of The Witch are easily explained away. After all, paranoia can invent quite a few disturbing fantasies, and a family plagued by a witch or the devil himself just seems so outlandish. But even in the end, certainty isn’t a guarantee with this film. As you learn what may have happened, some truths start to click into place. But what you see isn’t always what you get, and the movie readily makes the audience decide whether they believe what they see — whether the devil is real or just a manifestation of what was happening to a frightened family.
Read More: The Witch – How a Film Can Be So Loved and Yet So HatedDownload the script!
Mind-bending movies aren’t always made from novels, but this one certainly was. While I’m Thinking of Ending Things shares some similarities with the book that inspired it, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman certainly made it his own and eliminated a few elements that would have given it a bit more narrative clarity. From start to finish, this film is full of visual metaphors, unsettling changes to the characters and a bizarre conclusion that really does take a few views to understand more clearly.Download the script!
Spoiler alert! You may have wondered why the protagonist’s wife ignores him for over a year, but don’t worry: He’s just dead. The mind-bending happens not between all the events you see, but after realizing this core truth and revisiting all the things that happen between Malcolm and others around him: Cole’s assertion about dead people, the people he encounters, and the strangeness of his wife’s behavior. All of these things come into full focus, giving the audience a jarring relapse from their previous reality that feels all too surprising — albeit satisfying.
Read More: 5 Plot Point Breakdown: The Sixth SenseDownload the script!
Not all mind-bending movies need to feel satisfying. Donnie Darko is a prime example of this — a film that breaks physics and upsets the norm of storytelling to a large degree. The uneven pacing, the visual language and the overall tone of the movie create an unsettling experience that, when paired with the encounters of the main character, proves to challenge reality in a very uneasy way indeed.
It’s also high on the list of “film bro” movies that you won’t want to miss.
Read More: Screenwriter Richard Kelly on Writing Donnie DarkoDownload the script!
A heartfelt story that moves through space, time, and various realities, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a beautiful love letter to this decade’s obsession with multiverses. With every new reality comes new consequences and new issues to solve, but in this film, the problems start to overlap and threaten the reality that was and is for Evelyn and her family. Watching mundanity turn into an absurdist epic like in this film really does give any audience a cause to question reality as we know it.
Read More: The Hero’s Journey Breakdown: Everything Everywhere All At OnceDownload the script!
Over and over, we look to stories that define or redefine what the physical or metaphysical world looks like. As you start thinking about the mind-bending movies you want to write, consider what questions are small enough to answer, and which ones are big enough to leave open-ended. If you do it just right by following examples like the successful movies above, you just may have a chance at bending the minds of a few lucky readers before bringing that absurdity to the big screen.