Do movies always need to give audiences rational, concrete answers? This is one of the questions that divide moviegoers. While some want everything wrapped up with a bow, others enjoy being taken on surreal, illogical cinematic journeys that provide few definitive conclusions. Inspired by the likes of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, some contemporary filmmakers toy with audience expectations by releasing thrillers that, ultimately, make absolutely no logical sense.
With their suspenseful deep dives into the human psyche, these directors prove it’s possible to weave together suspenseful stories without linear, palatable narratives. While they may not all have mainstream appeal, every film on this list has been praised for its bizarre imagery, atmospherics, and tense narrative developments.
10 Enemy (2013)
In Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Enemy, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a college professor who discovers he has a doppelganger: an aspiring actor who looks physically identical to him. The revelation disturbs the men (both of whom are played by Gyllenhaal) and their partners as they become more obsessed with the other man’s life trajectory.
Eerie images of spiders pop up throughout the film before it arrives at a startling, mind-bending finale. Enemy is loosely based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double.
9 I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (2020)
Charlie Kaufman’s latest effort as both director and writer debuted on Netflix earlier this year. The plot of I’m Thinking of Ending Things seems simple enough: a young college student played by Jessie Buckley joins her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons) on a weekend trip to visit his parents (Toni Colette and David Thewlis) in upstate New York.
In true Kaufman fashion, the movie takes off into hallucinatory, dream-like territory from there as the protagonist’s sense of reality and time completely implode around her. What follows is a slow, horrifying examination of existential dread that defies classification.
8 In Fabric (2018)
Fashion kills in Peter Strickland’s dreamlike In Fabric. What comes across, on the surface, as a horror movie about a possessed dress unravels into a puzzling, decadent, and amusing assessment of couture culture.
Blending psychological terror, stylish settings, and visually insane sequences, In Fabric is the type of supernatural thriller that throws logic out the window. Instead, Strickland welcomes viewers to enjoy the ride by indulging in the imagistic, patterned world of apparel design.
7 Coherence (2013)
Coherence is a low-budget sci-fi gem that warps reality, leaving audiences scratching their heads and questioning their collective existence. In the movie, a dinner party in Los Angeles transforms into an interdimensional nightmare after a comet passing overhead literally causes multiple realities to co-exist at once.
Director James Ward Byrkit relies on references to quantum physics and astronomy to structure Coherence, but its unfolding action feels much more surreal than scientific. With little money, Byrkit manages to produce one confusing, but engrossing, film.
6 The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn is known for making films that emphasize style over standard narrative elements like the plot. The Neon Demon takes these directorial choices to their extremes; it stars Elle Fanning as an aspiring model swept up in the lives of people who want to take advantage of her youth, beauty, and inexperience.
While The Neon Demon makes a powerful statement about Hollywood’s obsession with looks, it is also rife with fantastical moments that keep it from being just a morality tale. In fact, this colorful thriller feels much more like a fever dream than anything else.
5 She Dies Tomorrow (2020)
The latest film from indie director and actor Amy Seimetz is a trippy, emotionally raw break-up story that moves quickly into abstract territory. Kate Lyn Sheil plays Amy, a woman who believes she is going to die tomorrow, a thought that soon infects her close friend Jane.
From Jane, the notion of imminent death spreads from person to person, as each character in She Dies Tomorrow prepares for one final day of living. Seimetz’s conceptual horror-thriller works harder to evoke certain moods than it does to provide any semblance of realism.
4 The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017)
Yorgos Lanthimos unloads one gut-wrenching psychodrama after another onto audiences, and few pack the cinematic punch of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Colin Farrell plays a cardiovascular surgeon named Dr. Steven Murphy whose life is forever disrupted by a teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan).
Martin’s unsettling, but unbelievable, threats against Dr. Murphy’s family are eventually actualized, causing the veneer of verisimilitude applied to the first half of the film to dissolve. As The Killing of a Sacred Deer reaches its extraordinary final act, the concept of comfortable suburban living is flipped on its head.
3 The Lighthouse (2019)
The much-anticipated follow-up to Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a period thriller about two lighthouse operators who lose their minds while working on a remote island in 19th century New England. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe play the men, who are both haunted by grotesque visions of various oceanic creatures – including mermaids.
While some critics dig deep into The Lighthouse‘s mythological allusions, others view it as a messy, gross-out story about two seamen who hit the bottle way too hard and let the world slip away from them. Either way, The Lighthouse is a visually overwhelming, black-and-white nightmare that proves impossible to turn away from.
2 Cemetery Of Splendour (2015)
One of the most respected arthouse filmmakers out of Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is known for creating films that eliminate the distinction between the worlds of the living and the dead. In Cemetery of Splendour, an overworked volunteer nurse investigates a sleeping sickness affecting a group of soldiers.
What science can’t explain in Cemetery of Splendour is that spirits are involved in the ongoing pandemic, and their influence causes the soldiers to remain in a hallucinatory stasis. A slow-moving, supernatural tale about sickness and dreams ensues.
1 Madeline’s Madeline (2018)
Before she directed Elisabeth Moss in Shirley, director Josephine Decker applied her experimental approach to Madeline’s Madeline. The film follows a teenage girl participating in a reimagining of the play The Three Little Pigs.
Struggling with mental illness and prone to outbursts, the titular character is pushed by the play’s director to dissociate from reality even more – which causes her to question her identity, especially as it relates to her troubled relationship with her mother. Helena Howard gives a riveting performance as the young Madeline, as she is capable of finding both despair and hope in her character’s creative journey.
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