- Key takeaways:
- Complex storytelling techniques and mind-boggling concepts in movies engage audiences and challenge viewer expectations.
- Titles that successfully incorporate eureka moments and puzzle pieces into their complex narratives are more likely to resonate with audiences.
- The journey for understanding in these movies is just as important as the destination, as the plots often reveal their true nature and demystify events at the very end.
Some movies feature complex storytelling techniques and mind-boggling concepts that can fail to make sense until the very end. These scripts are often designed to push the envelope on creative expression and intentionally challenge viewer expectations. Through the careful use of formatting, narrative structure, voice, pacing, and perspective, movies continue to engage audiences with stories that keep them guessing.
However, not all such cases are met with the same response. Like the legend of a map, titles that do well package their eureka moments with pieces of the puzzle that properly support their complex narratives. While screenwriters run the risk of losing their audiences in plots that get too complicated, titles like these continue to prove that the journey for understanding is just as important as the destination itself.
10 The Prestige (2006)
Starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman
- Release Date
- October 20, 2006
- Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo
- Sci-Fi, Mystery, Thriller, Drama
The Prestige’s narrative structure, featuring various timelines and points of view, keeps the audience puzzling over each character’s motives as well as the real nature of magic. The plot follows two rival magicians as they battle it out to discover the perfect illusion. While the non-linear structure adds to the suspense and enhances audience engagement, the at-times macabre storyline can be challenging to follow until the very end. It isn’t until the plot reveals Alfred Borden’s twin and Robert Angier’s clones that the movie’s events are truly demystified. The Prestige serves as a caricature of modern magic’s elusive nature, and garnered acclaim for its narrative direction and compelling performances.
9 Arrival (2016)
Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner
- Release Date
- November 11, 2016
- Michael Stuhlbarg, Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma, Amy Adams, Mark O’Brien, Jeremy Renner, Nathaly Thibault
Praised for its provocative story, along with Amy Adams’ gripping performance, Arrival follows a linguist, Louise Banks, who’s charged with deciphering alien language after their arrival on Earth. While the storytelling structure highlights the emotional impact and intellectual depth of the movie, its use of non-linear time, as well as the integration of Louise’s memories, add to the film’s labyrinthine narrative. It isn’t until the end when Louise’s ability to appreciate time like the aliens do that the reason for their visit comes to light. Arrival’s plot amplifies the movie’s overarching themes regarding the perception of stereotypes and the need to engage the unknown with a genuine desire to understand.
8 Shutter Island (2010)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio
- Release Date
- February 19, 2010
- Max Von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo
- Mystery, Thriller
follows a U.S. Marshall, Teddy Daniels, as he investigates a mental institution for a missing prisoner. While the movie received mixed reviews overall, it’s also been applauded for nailing its atmospheric tension. Leonardo DiCaprio’s compelling performance, an intentionally dubious narrator, and the film’s surreal backdrop contribute to the film’s palpable unease. As the narrative structure gradually unfolds Teddy’s past, it is only at the very end that the story reveals that Teddy is actually the missing prisoner, Andrew Laeddis. After his true identity comes to light, the events in Shutter Island take on a very different tone and meaning.
7 Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal
- Release Date
- November 18, 2016
- Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ellie Bamber, Laura Linney, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Michael Sheen, Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal
- Thriller, Drama
The dual narrative structure in Nocturnal Animals enhances the emotional impact of the film by providing depth to the storytelling. The movie follows an art gallery owner, Susan Morrow, after she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband. While reading the book, she reflects on how unhappy she’s become despite her relative success, as the novel causes her to examine past regrets. Susan’s flashbacks, along with the events in her ex-husband’s manuscript, blur the lines between reality and fiction, contributing to much of the confusion in the movie’s storyline. As the film and novel draw to a close, however, their conclusions mirror the emotional resolution between Susan and her ex-husband.
6 Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
Starring Josh Hartnett and Bruce Willis
Lucky Number Slevin‘s many plot twists, hidden agendas, and mistaken identities keep the audience guessing for most of the film. In the story, Slevin gets mistaken for his friend and swept up in a war between two major crime bosses, all while an elusive assassin picks off members of both factions. The narrative structure helps it build intrigue and suspense, encouraging viewers to piece the clues together as the story unfolds. While it can be confusing to follow along as different characters relay the same events through different perspectives, it isn’t until Slevin’s true identity comes to light that each event makes sense.
5 I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016)
Starring Ruth Wilson
The intentionally measured pace and surreal atmosphere in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House serve to establish uncertainty and doubt regarding the film’s supernatural occurrences. The script follows a live-in nurse after unsettling events encourage her to investigate the mysterious death of her employer’s former tenant. While the story’s pacing serves to amplify the eerie tone of the film, its cyclical nature can make it difficult to make sense of the events in the story. It’s only when the main character dies that I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’s ending reveals the paranormal occurrences for the premonition they actually were.
4 Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
Starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan
Everything Everywhere All at Once
- Release Date
- March 25, 2022
- Jenny Slate, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Harry Shum Jr., Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh
- Adventure, Comedy, Action
Everything Everywhere All At Once’s unconventional narrative structure adds depth to the storytelling, providing a very special and unforgettable experience. The story follows Evelyn Quan Wang who, after learning about her connection to the multiverse, becomes enmeshed in a conflict that spans multiple dimensions. Owing to the story’s central plotline, Everything Everywhere All At Once can be extremely difficult to follow, along with the narrative direction intentionally toying with the perception of reality. Additionally, the film challenged traditional storytelling conventions by attempting to blend multiple genres together. It isn’t until Evelyn chooses to accept the chaos and move with intention that the film’s themes are made crystal clear.
3 Tenet (2020)
Starring John David Washington And Robert Pattinson
- Release Date
- September 3, 2020
- Kenneth Branagh, John David Washington, Michael Caine, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clemence Poesy
- Thriller, Action, Sci-Fi
In Tenet, viewers are challenged to grasp the story’s events while also following along with its complex inversion of time and convoluted plot. Adding to the confusion, Tenet’s protagonist doesn’t have a real name. As a CIA operative, “The Protagonist” is recruited to stop an arms dealer in possession of technology that can reverse time. It’s close to the end when The Protagonist finally learns enough about time inversion to use it to his advantage and to make sense of certain events that happened throughout the film. Despite the confusing subject matter, Tenet is frequently praised for its ambitious vision and its immersive manipulation of time.
2 The Others (2001)
Starring Nicole Kidman
- Release Date
- August 10, 2001
- Nicole Kidman, James Bentley, Alakina Mann, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan
- Mystery, Thriller, Horror
The Others toys with viewer expectations by encouraging the audience to question the nature of the haunting and the reality of its main characters. The script follows Grace Stewart, a mother of two light-sensitive children, who becomes convinced her house is haunted. The feeling of isolation as a result of the characters never being able to leave the house contributes to the movie’s eerie and oppressive atmosphere. After multiple supernatural events and Grace’s building paranoia, The Others‘ ending reveals that she and her children are actually the ghosts haunting the house. The revelation of their tragic demise adds a twist that redefines the entire narrative.
1 Old (2021)
Starring Alex Wolff
Old follows a group of people on vacation who discover an isolated beach that causes accelerated aging. As parents watch their children grow old but retain the mentality of children, the urgency to solve the mystery and escape becomes desperate. After several harrowing experiences as a consequence of rapidly aging children, the story reveals that the beach is a part of scientific experiments aimed at understanding the aging process, making it a perfect addition to M. Night Shyamalan’s love of plot twists. While the story’s events can be difficult to follow, its time-lapse structure soundly reflects the narrative’s themes regarding the dangers of blind scientific experimentation even in the face of panic and desperation.