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: 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.
Initial Release: 2012
Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
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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.
Initial Release: 1977
Directed by: David Lynch
#82 on The Best '70s Movies
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.”
Initial Release: 2001
Directed by: David Lynch
#54 on The Best Whodunit Movies
The Plot: A playwright (Philip Seymour Hoffman) loses his family and decides to dedicate himself to producing his magnum opus. The film follows him for years as he obsessively chases his dream. As his life continues to unravel and an unknown disease ravages his body, the line between the play and reality begins to blur as countless doppelgängers appear in the cast and crew. In the end, the protagonist finds himself out of the director’s chair and forced to perform for his replacement until he passes.
Possible Interpretations: Both the film’s director, Charlie Kaufman, and lead actor, Hoffman, have commented on the meaning of the plot, but it remains nebulous. Overall, the story seems to be about the protagonist’s rapid progression through life, with the play serving as a metaphor for his hopes and dreams; never entirely achievable and increasingly muddled as he ages and approaches the end.
Initial Release: 2008
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman