Confusing movies not only entertain you when you’re watching them, but also force you to think about them afterwards. Entertainism lists out some of the most confusing movies that have ever been made.
Movies are one of the most famous forms of creative expression in the modern world. There are comedies, there are tragedies, there are mysteries, there are adventures, there are horrors, and there are the immortal romances.
While it is an essential requirement of a movie that it shows viewers a sensible story to its conclusion, confusing movies are even more captivating, and when correctly handled, often appreciated more by critics. These movies often come to define the works of their creator, and can become make-or-break films for the particular director.
Confusing movies can be divided into three types: those that are just too poorly conceived to make any sense, those that have a complicated plot or setting, and those that make you ponder over them even after you’ve left the theater. This article is primarily a list of the latter. Such movies are often deliberately left open to be interpreted in the viewer’s own way. There are deliberate ambiguities, philosophical overtones, or simply a case of the viewers having to peep behind the camera and try to identify the director’s vision and perspective. Many directors, in fact, are experts at deliberately leaving ambiguous ‘clues’ to steer the audience into different directions, and sometimes even dead ends.
The movies listed here are not in any particular order, because ranking them based on how confusing they are is a task more confusing than the movies themselves.
DISCLAIMER: This compilation is entirely the writer’s personal choice. The descriptions may contain spoilers.
Most Confusing Movies of All Time
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Jack Torrance, a troubled writer suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, his wife Wendy, and his son Danny who has a special psychic ability called ‘shining’, agree to look after a hotel during the winter. The numerous ghosts in the hotel take over Jack, and try to force him to emulate a previous caretaker of the hotel, who had killed his own family and himself.
We kick off with the horror classic The Shining. Stanley Kubrick is among the most mystifying directors of all time, and for good reason. His films are laden with brilliant and notoriously elaborate visual treats, deliberate ‘mistakes’ left open to interpretation, and liberal use of subliminal narration. This gem of a horror film is a prime example of all the three.
The Shining was adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name. While the novel clearly describes the ghosts in the hotel as a supernatural phenomenon, Kubrick’s version implicitly and constantly offers an alternate, psychological explanation – a story of a family suffering from cabin fever in a forlorn, deserted building, and going mad together. There are prominent scenes in the movie to support both theories, which further adds to the confusion about the origin of the ghosts in the hotel.
This movie scares you to death on the surface, but when viewed inquisitively, leaves a nagging feeling that there is more to it than the sum of all its parts.
Director: The Wachowski Brothers
Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer and expert hacker (by the name of Neo), learns that the world is a computer program, a virtual reality fed into the brains of humans, and are kept captive by a dominant race of machines, who survive by harnessing the bioelectricity generated by the bodies of their human prisoners. Morpheus, Neo’s rescuer and mentor, is one of the people freed from the matrix and lives in the ‘real world’. As Anderson struggles to come to terms with this shocking discovery, he is told that he is ‘The One’, a prophesied messiah destined to end the war between the freed humans – who live in an underground city called Zion – and the machines.
The sci-fi thriller The Matrix enthralls, entertains, and confuses in equal measure. The basic construct that the world we live in is a mere virtual reality is enough to mess up our powers of comprehension, and the Wachowski brothers certainly don’t make things any easier. The theme of living your life as a dream is present throughout, encapsulated by Morpheus’ question to Neo,
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
The movie also explores many spiritual aspects, such as messiahs, the ‘real world’ beyond the illusion, and rebirth. Many fans of this movie (including yours truly) have also theorized that there could be many more layers of the Matrix than the two depicted in the movie! So what exactly is real?
Director: David Lynch
Henry Spencer, an everyman, has several creepy experiences as his girlfriend gives birth to an alien-looking creature. As he is forced to look after the gruesome ‘child’, he finds himself fascinated by a mysterious neighbor.
You can’t really compile a list of the most confusing movies without mentioning the versatile director, David Lynch.
More than 30 years after its release, Eraserhead still confuses movie critics, who are undecided as to what the captivating visual imagery stands for. Some say it is a commentary on the increasing industrialization of the common man’s world, some say it stands for the basal need of the common man to conceive, some even say the whole movie could be Spencer’s nightmare! The movie is primarily a visual journey, ably aided by the brilliant soundtrack. The constant machine noise, symbolizing the effect of industrialism on the common man’s life, looms ominously over the horrors faced by Spencer, and subliminally reminds the viewers of the movie’s industrial cityscape.
Stanley Kubrick chose to show this film to his crew while working on The Shining, to explain to them what effect he was trying to achieve with his horror classic.
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (Credited to Joel Coen)
A successful young playwright, Barton Fink, decides to try his luck in Hollywood. He finds an unlikely friend in the form of his neighbor in a desolate hotel. As Fink discovers the murky waters of Hollywood and finds an unstable romance, he finds out that there is much more to his friend, Charlie Meadows, than Fink knows.
This is a film which has divided opinion among critics, starting right from its genre! Various critics have classified this film under numerous genres, and this eccentric film manages to exceed the boundaries of all of them. It is the story of an artist growing up and coming to terms with the harsh realities of life, a dark and brooding murder mystery, and a looming horror story, all mixed into one stunning, irresistible package. Like many films in this list, Barton Fink contains allusions to the rift between dreams and reality. Some critics even suggest that virtually the entire second half of the movie is a nightmare experienced by the poor Fink.
Right from the bleak decor of Fink’s residence to the fiery, demonic final appearance of Charlie, this movie contains visual symbols for various concepts. The themes explored in this bewildering movie include racism, slavery, elitism, the leeching of the common man by corporate greed, and homosexuality, among others.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Director: Stanley Kubrick
A mysterious black monolith ‘guides’ ancient humans towards technological advancement. Thousands of years later, an identical monolith is activated when humans on the Moon come in contact with it, and a mysterious mission to Jupiter becomes a trip into the unknown for a daring scientist, who is transformed into a celestial ‘star-child’ by a race of highly intelligent extraterrestrials.
Kubrick makes a well-deserved second mention on this list with this utterly unintelligible sci-fi epic.
2001 is famous for its brilliant visuals, and the deliberate emphasis on them. The movie is presented in three parts, occurring in three distinct eras of human technological advancement. The first part, showing a prehistoric colony of humanoid apes, features no dialog at all. The second part is also centered around the imagery, although there is dialog, and the third part is the only one that prominently features dialogs. The soundtrack for this movie is also famous. Kubrick, in a stroke of genius, used waltz music in this movie to simulate the rotational motion of orbiting satellites. Other music pieces, particularly the iconic theme music, have become part of sci-fi folklore. The dominance of sounds over dialog could also be symbolic of the nature of babies, mirroring the climactic theme of rebirth in the movie.
Featuring a theme of rebirth, this movie contains probably the most confusing climax in the world. Astronaut David Bowman, nearing Jupiter, sees another black monolith orbiting the planet. Approaching it, Bowman is sucked into a kaleidoscopic tunnel through spacetime and, after some unnerving experiences, is transformed into a child within a glowing orb, looking upon the Earth. This sequence, which helped Stanley Kubrick win his only Academy Award, for Special Effects, has been interpreted by many. Like most Kubrick films, possible interpretations abound aplenty. My two cents is that the final sequence implies a ‘rebirth’ of the human race itself, gazing at its future home. As to why we are reborn, I am just as confused as anybody!
Director: Richard Kelly
Donnie Darko, an American youngster, has a disturbing vision of a demonic rabbit warning him of a coming doomsday. Inevitably personally involved, Darko tries to make sense of the prophecy. After shooting a real person dressed like the demonic rabbit of his dreams, the doomsday events begin to unfold.
Donnie Darko is not your typical disaster film, though its plot centers around the doomsday. There are no Mayan prophecies, no untimely arrival of the next ice age, and earthquakes don’t tear up the Earth. Instead, Donnie Darko battles his own demons as he tries to make sense of the foreboding message.
On the surface, the story makes no sense, and first viewings (and probably the next few viewings as well) will no doubt be extremely confusing. Why does Donnie see the human rabbit after encountering him in his dreams? If the human rabbit has a part to play in the following sequence, why does Donnie kill him? If he is inconsequential to what follows, why does he show up at all?
The second-most confusing question is whether Donnie is chosen as the bearer of the doomsday prophecy. If he is chosen, why? If he is not, why does he encounter the human rabbit, which he then promptly kills?
The third one is whether Donnie had to die at the end. If he had survived the accident, would it have reversed the doomsday happenings?
Neither of these questions are answered in the movie itself, and many interpretations can be drawn. The most probable one is that Donnie exists in a tangential universe (NOT parallel universe) to the real universe, and has to destroy the tangential universe in order for the real universe to function properly again. But then, the obvious question is, how did the tangential universe form? Why was Donnie chosen to end the tangential universe? Or was he? If he had survived at the end, would the real world have had to assimilate the anomaly of Donnie’s life?
Makes no sense, right? Makes no sense to me either. And I’ve watched the film more than once!
Director: David Lynch
In a nonlinear sequence of possibly unrelated events, a woman survives an accident, and an actress moves in with the woman. A man tells his friend about a disturbing nightmare. The two women help each other find her true identity. From then on, the story is told in the form of numerous vignettes, sometimes intersecting, sometimes depicting a tale of their own.
Like the incomparable Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch earns a second spot on this list. Like most of his films, Lynch has refused to explain his perspective behind this befuddling film.
Mulholland Drive is often termed a story with no ‘purpose’, and hence no inevitable conclusion. There is an endless variety of possible interpretations that can be drawn from its hypnotic, trancing visual imagery. Personally, I claim to have interpreted it as a story with two halves: one in a destabilizing dream, and the other in an even more destabilizing reality. However, where this film excels, is that if someone else comes up with a different interpretation, I would have no evidence whatsoever to assert my theory! Another theory is that there is no significant mystery – the story, improbable as it is, is true in the way it is shown.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Max Cohen, a number theorist, finds himself targeted by criminals when he observes the golden ratio (phi) in stock trading trends. Overwhelmed by the implications of his discovery, he is driven to self-destruction.
The emphasis on the golden ratio is not the most confusing aspect of this film (the golden ratio is indeed observed in innumerable natural phenomena). It is the possible divine connection – the golden ratio indicating the name of God – that messes up this movie. Is Max somehow connected to the almighty? If not, is it his own find? If so, why can’t he cope with the repercussions? After trepanning himself, does he forget the golden ratio, or is he capable of dealing with the knowledge? Does he even survive the rudimentary operation, or is the next part of the film an afterlife? And what is up with the bulge on his head?
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
A classic tale of the unreliable narrator. A psychologist travels to a spacecraft orbiting a seemingly sentient planet, to investigate weird incidences occurring on the spacecraft with terrifying regularity. Once on board, however, he succumbs to the mysterious influence of the planet-being and suffers debilitating hallucinations. Despite the brilliant plot, Solaris suffers from having one of the slowest-moving plots in cinema history.
Movies With the Most Complicated Plots
These movies either explain the complicated plot structure in the end, or explain the story as it progresses (and thus don’t qualify for the main list), but they must be mentioned for their brilliantly written scripts, and shock endings.
- Blue Velvet
- Shutter Island
- The Machinist
- Ghost in the Shell
- The Sixth Sense
- Vanilla Sky
- Synecdoche, New York
- The Game
- Fight Club
- The Matrix Revolutions
- The Seventh Seal
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
- 12 Monkeys
- A Beautiful Mind
- The Usual Suspects
- The Shawshank Redemption
- Eyes Wide Shut
- The Uninvited
- Black Swan
- The Village
- The Prestige
This is a very subjective list of movies, that personally, I found confusing and challenging to understand. Although I can now claim to have understood many of these, sometimes, not knowing really is fun!