According to Urban Dictionary, a “mindfuck” movie employs “A cinematic technique that uses misdirection to lead to an ending that is at first glance completely unexpected or contradictory, but is coherent and reasonable given hindsight and careful observation of the clues presented.”
Although IMDb categorizes plot-twist movies and mind fuck movies together, mind fuck movies tend to take it much, much further. They are not too much different from a movie with a twist ending, except for the fact that the ending keeps twisting and twisting into your mind like a screwdriver that’s been plunged into your brain. According to The Morning News, “Some movies inform. Some movies entertain. And some pry open your skull and punch you in the brain”:
“And they are not those movies where the audience (and the characters) think they know what’s happening, only to discover in the final moments some key twist that turns everything on its head. (Bruce Willis was balding the whole time?!) I love those films as well, but that’s not what we’re discussing. In Mindfuck Movies you know that Something Is Going On. It’s just not clear what.”The Morning News
According to a writer for Refinery29, mind fuck movies hurt your brain—but in a good way.
It is this emphasis on intricate plot twists that leads both the viewer, and often the film’s main character, to question their grip on reality that distinguish mind fuck films from merely weird movies or trippy movies.
Here is a comprehensive list of films where the main character or members of the main group endure brutal psychological torments to the point where they don’t know if they’re sane or crazy or what’s real and what’s not. In other words, their minds get fucked with throughout the movie—and by proxy, so do ours.
Top Mind Fuck Movies
After recovering in a mental hospital from a nervous breakdown, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) goes to a country retreat in Connecticut to decompress, bringing her husband and friend along with her. When they arrive, there’s already a strange mute girl named Emily living there, but they let her stay. When Jessica goes for a swim in the lake, she spots a dead body just below the surface. Things only get stranger, as bodies disappear, Jessica hears voices, and Emily shows signs that she may actually be a vampire. The people close to Jessica, as well as Jessica herself, fear that she may be losing her mind again. Or is it that someone’s deliberately trying to drive her crazy? Is Jessica merely paranoid, or are strange things actually happening all around her?
In this Christopher Nolan film, Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a man whose wife was recently brutally raped and murdered. In his attempt to save his wife during the incident, Guy experienced brain damage that has left him with severe short-term memory loss. It’s so severe that he takes Polaroids of things so he doesn’t instantly forget them. If it’s something extremely important, he will tattoo the information on his body as a permanent “memento.” He consults with two acquaintances who tell him that they’ll help him find his wife’s murderer, but every time he meets them again, he forgets who they are. Gradually, he starts to sense that they may not be trying to help him at all. Reel Views writes, “In some ways, Memento can almost be described as anti-Groundhog Day….Both pictures toy with timelines and memory, but, while Groundhog Day re-treads one period of time, constantly re-shaping recent history, Memento represents the past as a vacuum.”
Bill Paxton directed and assumes the lead role in this film about a fanatically religious father who recruits his two sons, Fenton and Adam, to help him kill people that he has concluded are demons. He tells his sons that an angel has visited him and assigned him to “destroy” demons. They kill so many people that their spree becomes known to the public as the “God’s Hand” serial murders. During a crisis of conscience, young Fenton kills his father, then goes to the FBI and confesses. But is Fenton actually who he says he is, or has he assumed his brother’s identity? And will the FBI agent live long enough to bring everyone to justice?
This supremely unwatchable film by French director Gaspar Noé takes place over the course of one long, hot night in Paris as a beautiful woman named Alex (Monica Bellucci) and her ex-boyfriend seek to find and punish a man who raped Alex in an excruciatingly shocking nine-minute rape scene. There’s another scene at a gay bar where a man’s head is pummeled into paste with a fire extinguisher that had many viewers walking out of the theater. Compounding things is the fact that the entire narrative is told in reverse, and the director used subliminal sounds and shaky, hand-held camera effects to induce discomfort and nausea in viewers. Reel Views writes, “Irreversible is the kind of film that will offend, outrage, and possibly even sicken about 90% of the mainstream viewing audience. Its brutal, unflinching depiction of violence and sexual violation is of a kind that I have never previously encountered in a movie.”
After chatting with one another for weeks in online rooms, 32-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) agrees to meet up with a 14-year-old girl named Hayley Stark (Elliot Page). What Jeff doesn’t realize is that Hayley has dramatically different plans for the evening than Jeff does—rather than being excited for an illicit tryst with a pedophile, she plans to tie him up and castrate him, passive-aggressively reassuring him that it won’t be too bad, because castration can only happen to a man once. Empathetic with Hayley’s thirst for vengeance but dubious about the film’s apparent celebration of sexual sadism even in the name of revenge, Roger Ebert writes, “Before she carries out her threat, however, she plays mind games with him. She has followed him into other chat rooms, she says. She suspects he may have been implicated in the death of a young person. She explores his home and finds his stash of porno. He begs for mercy. She lets him beg.”
A pair of extremely controlling parents keep their three teenage children under strict guard 24 hours a day in their own makeshift “utopia” inside a sprawling country estate. They have never allowed their children to venture outside of the estate’s walled compound. Every day, the kids are forced to listen to their father’s instructional tapes that teach them an entirely invented language. If, by chance, some snippets of language emerge from outside the walls, their father will redefine the words. For example, “zombies” are little flowers and “the sea” is a large chair. Their father teaches them that ordinary cats are dangerous, lethal predators. Then one day, when the father decides to bring an adult woman named Christina into the compound to satisfy one of his sons’ burgeoning sexual desires, the family’s carefully crafted web of unreality unspools. Roger Ebert writes, “‘Dogtooth’ is a bizarre fantasy that takes the concept of home schooling to squirmy extremes. Some home schoolers try to limit what their children can learn, and others attempt to broaden it. The parents in ‘Dogtooth’ have passed far beyond such categories, into the realms of home psychopathology.”
In another mind fuck movie from Christopher Nolan of Memento fame, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a professional thief with the rare (and extremely valuable) ability to steal thoughts from people’s minds while they are dreaming. But his expertise soon finds him ostracized and penniless. Then he is offered a chance to redeem himself by reversing the process and implanting thoughts in a target’s mind. But he soon finds that his target seems to always be one step ahead of him. Roger Ebert writes, “Like the hero of that film, the viewer of ‘Inception’ is adrift in time and experience. We can never even be quite sure what the relationship between dream time and real time is.”
Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller casts Leonardo DiCaprio as Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, a traumatized WWII vet who helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp and who also suffered the loss of his wife due to arson. Teddy is sent along with another agent to an asylum on Shutter Island off the Massachusetts coast. He tells his partner that his real objective for the visit is to find Andrew Laeddis, the arsonist who killed his wife. When Teddy arrives at the asylum, he starts experiencing migraines and flashbacks about his wife’s death. He also starts to suspect that the psychiatrists on the island are performing unethical lobotomies on the patients. Over time, Teddy gradually begins to suspect that he, too, is an experimental psychiatric patient. He also starts to fear that he isn’t really “Teddy” at all. Reel Views writes, “an atmospheric mind-fuck of a thriller, this movie delights in playing games with the audience’s perceptions and has been crafted with such competence that it rises above the somewhat generic storyline that forms the basis of Dennis Lehane’s novel.”
Tom Podowski (Xavier Dolan) and Guillame Longchamp (Caleb Landry Jones) are two young gay lovers in Montreal whose union is shattered when Guillame suddenly dies. In mourning, Tom visits the rural town of Guillame’s birth to console his grieving mother, who is entirely unaware that her son was gay. It is at the farm where Tom encounters Guillaume’s brother Francis, who knows that Tom is gay and who puts him through a series of physical and emotional humiliations as a result—which may say more about Francis’s sexuality than it does about Tom’s. A Good Movie to Watch writes, “What starts as an unsettling drama quickly morphs into a searing psychological thriller….During his stay, Tom becomes subject to the violent whims of his boyfriend’s brother….The intense psychosexual dynamic that develops becomes a piercing examination of homophobia, masculinity, and violence.”
In this psychological action thriller that is yet another offbeat take on Groundhog Day, Tom Cruise portrays Major William Cage, who goes to battle trying to save planet Earth from an invasion by an alien species known as Mimics, who have already destroyed most of Europe. When attacked by a Mimic, Cage uses an explosive device to kill the beast, but he also kills himself in the process. He is then cursed to wake up and relive the murder/suicide every single day until he figures out a way to kill the creature without killing himself.
More of a collective mind fuck movie than the tale of an individual being psychologically tormented, The Beach House tells the story of a young couple who rents out a Massachusetts beach house for some psychological relaxation, only to be interrupted by another couple who are not only uninvited, they make themselves right at home. Around the same time that the mysterious couple arrives, so does a strange fog roll into the area—along with a deadly infection.
Set in the Adirondack High Peaks of Upstate New York, two best friends, Gus and Adam, set out for a winter backpacking trip. After a horrifying encounter with a monster, Gus finds himself alone and lost. Now he must now fight for his life while keeping his grip on reality as he’s tormented both physically and psychologically by the evil Native American creature of legend, the Wendigo. Nerdly writes, “The Retreat is a well-made, surprisingly great slow burn horror movie and fans of Ari Aster will no doubt enjoy it. It looks beautiful at times – the snow-covered forest and landscape are a great choice of location and there’s enough twists and scares to keep long term horror fans happy.”
May (Brea Grant) is a self-help author married to a man named Ted (Dhruv Singh), who for some reason proves incapable of protecting her from a masked man who invades her house and attempts to kill her every night. Even after May murders him, the man keeps reappearing. What messes with her mind the most is the fact that not only does her husband not attempt to protect her, he is completely blasé about the ongoing attacks. When May understandably starts losing her mind, everyone around her acts as if she’s simply going crazy and doesn’t have anything to worry about. The film’s title comes from a nonchalant social worker who shrugs and tells May she’s lucky to be alive.
A lonely teenage girl named Izzy (Zelda Adams) lives alone with her mother (Toby Poser) in a small home in the woods, where they spend every day making heavy metal music. Izzy’s mother forbids her from socializing with other teens, explaining that Izzy is sick, although Izzy feels perfectly normal. When Izzy accidentally encounters another teen, she begins to suspect that her mother is descended from a long line of witches—which might explain why mom is able to track Izzy’s every move using a very primitive GPS system of tree bark, berries, and human blood.
In this psychological thriller by Edgar Wright, Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, an aspiring young fashion designer who is entirely fixated on London during the Swinging Sixties even though the film is set in the present. When she is accepted at a London art college, Eloise moves away from the rural house she shared with her grandmother into a dorm at the London College of Fashion. She also finds a magical portal that allows her to travel back to the Swinging Sixties in her sleep, which at first thrills her—until she realizes that a singer she idolizes named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) is controlled by an abusive pimp. Suddenly, all of her dreams about the sixties turn into nightmares.
More Mind Fuck Movies
- The Machinist (2004) An emaciated factory worker (Christian Bale) who has gone without sleep for a year starts to question his own sanity.
- The Butterfly Effect (2004) Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) suffers blackouts at the most inopportune times. He learns to slowly find his way back to sanity through reading his diary.
- The Jacket (2005) a perfectly sane war vet is sent to a mental institution, where a sadistic doctor’s experiments slowly drive him mad.
- The Number 23 (2007) Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) becomes haunted by the idea that a novel was written about him, especially when disturbing parallels between the novel and his real life start to occur.
- Enemy (2013) is loosely based on Dostoevsky’s The Double. After spotting his doppelgänger in a movie, a man won’t rest until he finds him.
- The Signal (2014) A computer genius lures a pair of friends into a road trip. Only one of the friends awakes from a sudden blackout, only to realize he’s trapped in a living nightmare.
- The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) is based on a real-life 1971 sociology experiment where college students were split into prisoners and guards in a fake prison. The experiment was quickly terminated after the guards became sadistic control freaks.
- Happy Death Day (2017) is a sick horror twist on Groundhog Day. A college student has to endlessly relive the day she was murdered until she finally figures out who keeps killing her.
- Black Mirror: Bandersnatch After a programmer adapts a troubled writer’s novel into a video game, he quickly loses his grip on reality.
- The Platform (2019) Prisoners are assigned two to a cell in a prison that only has one cell per tier. A food platform descends once per day, stopping at each cell for only two minutes. Prisoners are forced to grab and eat as much as they can—assuming there’s any food left by the time it gets to them.
- Joker (2019) Joaquin Phoenix won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his brilliant portrayal of a troubled loner who is bullied to the point where he finally explodes.