The mind needs a workout, just like the body. Watch psychological thriller movies to get one.

These films may not have Arnold Schwarzenegger abseiling down buildings or firing machine guns but have the sort of excitement that gets mental cogs turning. We introduce you to a few psychological thriller movies that make excellent treadmills for the brain.

Ingredients that make perfect psychological thriller movies

So, what qualifies as a mind-bending psychological thriller? Here’s our recipe for the perfect one.

1. Everything’s in the Mind

First of all, a mind-bending film focuses on the protagonist’s mind. It blurs the distinction between his or her imagination and reality. Therefore, it’s difficult to decide which is real. Furthermore, you feel relieved when the person finally manages to defeat his or her demons.

2. The Unreliable Narrative

Also, many psychological thrillers have the protagonist as a narrator. In many cases, the person claims that someone has forced him (or her) into circumstances against his (or her) will. You’ll find it difficult to decide if you should believe the person.

Of course, not all psychological thriller movies will have a narrator. But successful ones all have one thing in common – they leave you questioning circumstances and realities.

3. The Twist

First-rate psychological thriller movies thrive on the abnormal and unexpected. Their plots will have unpredictable twists and turns.

4. Feelings of Dread

Also, psychological thriller movies don’t involve jump scares. Instead, their premise is a mixture of dread and spine-chilling excitement. A well-directed one will scare sparingly and have you questioning what’s real at each turn.

5. The Paranormal

Many psychological thriller movies delve into the supernatural, surreal, or the human psyche. For example, in What Lies Beneath, Michelle Pfieffer has to face the ghost of a dead woman. These ‘ghosts’ are most often metaphors for the problems the protagonists have to face.

7 Mind-Bending Psychological Thriller Movies with a Deep Meaning

Furthermore, the best psychological thriller movies make audiences question the meaning of life. Here are a few that do.

1. Black Swan

First of all is Black Swan, a film which revolves around dedicated dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) who wins the part of the Black Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Nina becomes so obsessed with defeating the competition for the part that she loses her grip on reality and gradually descends into living a nightmare.

Why is this film poignant? It makes one question if the price of success and artistic perfection is too high.

2. Cube

This science-fiction horror film, directed by Vincenzo Natali, involves people who cross industrialized cube-shaped rooms rigged with death traps. It stars Nicole De Boer, Nicky Guadagni, and a team of other stellar actors.

Each person, of course, has to escape the rooms, which one can only do by coming up with a prime number. One of them, Worth, finally admits to the de facto leader of the group, Quentin, that he designed the outer shell of these industrialized traps for the bureaucracy.

They meet a mentally challenged man, Kazan, as they try vainly to leave. Ironically, it’s Kazan, an autistic savant, who guides them out of the cube with his usual ability to process prime factorizations. He opens the final door to reveal a white light, a metaphor for hope.

The industrialized rooms could parallel our relationship with material things. This film explores it and reminds us that it can kill us if it turns into an obsession.

Note that Worth, who designed the rooms, refuses to leave because he has lost his faith in humanity. Perhaps we could also examine the way society perceives those with special needs.

3. Panic Room (2002)

This conspiracy thriller revolves around Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her eleven-year-old daughter, Sarah. They move into a Brownstone on the Upper West Side of New York City. The previous owner of the home had installed a Panic Room to protect the house’s occupants from intruders.

On the day they move in, Junior, the previous owner’s grandson, Burnham, an employee of the residence’s security company, and Raoul, a hired hitman, break into the home. They want the $3 million worth of bearer bonds that are in a safe in the Panic Room.

They decide to continue with the heist despite finding out that the Altmans had moved in earlier than expected. Of course, Meg discovers the intruders, so she and Sarah run into the Panic Room and lock the door.

The two struggle with the intruders, who try all means to make them leave the room, including flooding it with propane gas. If you haven’t watched the film yet, do so to find out the ending.

This movie, according to critics, has feminist overtones. According to academic Jyolsna Kapur, Meg, a divorcee, is the usual depiction of paranoia. She gives in to fear and is vulnerable. The male protagonist, on the other hand, thinks on his feet.

There is also the exploration of technology. The camera’s eye can pass through walls to capture footage throughout the home. It is mobile, yet unstable, a tool for both good and evil.

4. Naboer/Next Door (2005)

This psychological thriller surrounds John (Kristoffer Joner), who is going through a painful breakup with girlfriend Ingrid (Bache Wiig).

Two beautiful sisters seduce him, and he has no idea what is real and what isn’t. It becomes clear that they have trapped him in a psychological game.

This film is a simple yet gentle reminder not to give in to sexual temptation; it’s too easy to end up its victim.

5. Requiem for A Dream (2000)

This 2000 psychological drama, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Ellen Burstyn, depicts four different types of drug addiction. Each form imprisons a user in a world of delusion.

The message is simple yet profoundly crafted; the world of drugs isn’t a safe one to explore.

6. Anamorph (2007)

This 2007 film taps on the brilliance of the artist. It surrounds semi-retired detective Stan Aubray (Willem Dafoe), whose job is to catch an artistic serial killer. He notices that this case is similar to a previous one.

The film’s premise is anamorphosis, a painting technique that manipulates perspective to create two competing images, which look like a single image, on the same canvas. The detectives struggle to outwit the artist’s uncanny ability to govern their perspectives.

The message of this film is clear – seeing isn’t necessarily believing.

7. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

This 1990 psychological thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Tim Robbins, features a Vietnam Veteran who experiences visions as a result of his experiences during the Vietnam War. He tries to find out the truth as his ordeal worsens.

This film focuses on the rigors of war and the plight of returning army veterans. It also reminds us to look beyond the physical; we mustn’t forget the emotional and mental suffering that war victims go through.

In all, psychological thriller movies don’t just scare you; they can teach you a few life lessons as well.

Michelle Liew, B.A.

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