Movies that confuse people are generally thought of as poorly made, but not all baffling movie plots are bad ones. Some screenwriters and directors purposefully attempt to befuddle their audiences, ensuring people need to think through a storyline - or watch it multiple times - before they really “get” the movie.
Some of the greatest films of all time are also the most confusing movies ever made. These can include surrealist classics, non-chronological tales, or adventures that bend the laws of time and space. If a film is well-made, it doesn’t necessarily have to be understood to be enjoyed - but that hasn't stopped people from trying to decode them.
The Plot: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) have a baby, but the child has a disgusting, inhuman appearance. Henry begins to experience visions of a strange planet, Mary leaves, and his non-baby cries incessantly. Eventually, Henry discovers his baby has no skin when he removes its swaddling clothes only to have its organs spill on the floor. The film ends in unexplainable madness.
Possible Interpretations: Director David Lynch refuses to talk publicly about the meaning behind Eraserhead, stating “I like to have people be able to form their own opinion as to what it means and have their own ideas about things... The interpretation of what it’s all about has never been my interpretation.”
Thus, the world may never know the truth about this movie's plot - though the most popular theories center around it being a commentary on the fear of parenthood.
Directed by: David Lynch
The Plot: Six different stories are told in six different periods spanning literal centuries - from 1849 to a post-apocalyptic 2321 - with each cast of characters connected by literature, birthmarks, and possible reincarnation. The individual plotlines are told out of sequence and become intertwined, with the consequences of the characters' actions affecting those in the past, present, and future.
Possible Interpretations: Cloud Atlas can best be understood by ignoring the actors portraying multiple characters and focusing on factors like birthmarks and the pairing of soulmates that point at the real progression of the story - as highlighted by several online infographics. The viewer also has to accept that this narrative causality works both backward and forward in time.
Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
The Plot: A woman (Naomi Watts) crashes her car on Mulholland Drive, develops amnesia, and wanders into an apartment belonging to an aspiring actor (Laura Elena Harring) in the Hollywood Hills. The two begin a love affair, while the actor struggles to ignite her career and the amnesiac tries to regain her memories. Their search leads them to a mysterious blue box and the identities of two other women. Then, the plot starts again, with the original women now living the lives of the other two. It all culminates when infidelity drives one of the new women to hire someone to off the other. But when the job is complete, she takes her own life in despair.
Possible Interpretations: Some of the greatest minds in cinema have struggled to make sense of Mulholland Drive’s plot, with explanations ranging from it being half-dream, half-reality to a person reimagining their life at its end. Others, like Roger Ebert, settle on “There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.”
Directed by: David Lynch
The Plot: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor famed for playing a superhero, is experiencing the twilight of his career. He attempts to resuscitate his fame with a role in a play, while simultaneously rebuilding his relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone). Thomson visualizes his superheroic persona throughout the film, and attempts to end his life on stage during the play's opening night - but he survives. Later, Thomson flies out his hospital window into the sky as his daughter watches and smiles.
Possible Interpretations: The theories about Birdman’s twist ending seem to fall into two camps - one assumes Riggan Thomson can use his Birdman powers somehow, the other believes he perishes after exiting the window. Depending on which you agree with, the smile on his daughter’s face can be interpreted in numerous ways, ranging from optimistic to tragic.
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu