Top 10 Mindf**k Movies

With more spoilers than Formula One, Martin gets out of the shower to find it was all just a bad dream...

Total Recall

Mindfuck: An idea or concept that shakes one’s previously held beliefs or assumptions about the nature of reality. (Urban Dictionary)

Though mentioned in the lyrics of The Rocky Horror Show, ‘mindfuck’ entered the cultural consciousness with Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger sci-fi outing Total Recall

ARNIE: “I’ve got to hand it to you, Cohagen – that’s the best mind-fuck yet.”

The late Philip K. Dick (Total Recall was based on his short story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) was the mindfuck-master, and the cream of his short-stories frequently feature people who discover the world is not quite as they thought. In Blade Runner, Rachel’s discovery that her memories are cut-and-paste copies of her employer’s niece’s life is a fairly typical P.K.D. event. Dick was obsessed with solipsism, the notion that our reality is informed only by senses that can be manipulated, and works such as Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch explore the narrative potential of these possibilities.

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The best of hack-novelist John Franklin Bardin’s secret ‘quality’ work is also a great literary mindfuck – in his 1946 novel The Deadly Percheron, a respected psychiatrist wakes up one day to find he is actually a disfigured patient in a mental institution, and must decide if his memory of another life is part of his sickness or the key to his salvation.

Heading for the bargain-basement section, probably the most famous and outrageous mindfuck in popular western culture was when the producers of Dallas decided to reincarnate a dead character when the actor wanted back into the role, and Bobby Ewing famously stepped out of Victoria Principal’s shower and nullified all the events in the previous season of the show. Not even Emma Samms’s alien abduction in The Colbys could top it.

Let’s look at some of the best movie mindfucks, excluding however the noteworthy Shyamalan-style ‘He was dead all the time’ conceit found in his work and in films such as The Others (2001). Here are some reality-bending scenarios that did it the hard way…

10. F For Fake (Vérités et mensonges, FR, 1974) In this under-rated curiosity from the tail-end of the great Orson Welles’s career, the corpulent prankster presents us with a history of inventive and strange cases of fakery and fraud, and promises that “For the next hour everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts.”. Trouble is, the film runs for eighty-five minutes, and Welles confesses at the end that he has been lying his head off for nearly half an hour!

9. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) ‘Amnesia-chick’ Geena Davis has hired down-at-heel dick Samuel L. Jackson to find out who she was before she washed up on the New England shore and became a cookie-baking wife and mother. Turns out she was a hypertense blonde assassin, and the two sides of her personality go literally head-to-head as she struggles to unravel her past and escape old enemies who have just noticed that she is still alive…

8. The Game (1997) The ennui of tycoon Michael Douglas’s life is broken by an unusual gift from his brother – participation in a life-altering game run by a Quitters Inc.-style company that seems to have the power to change an implausible number of real-world events. You’ll either be gratified and ‘made whole’ by the ending of David Fincher’s typically off-beat thriller, or you’ll be throwing popcorn at the screen in disgust.

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7. Paycheck (2003) Philip K. Dick provides the base story as well-heeled reverse-engineer Ben Affleck gets paid to steal other manufacturers’ ideas and then forget that he ever did it (by chemically burning out memories in his brain). At the end of an unusually long and lucrative ‘blank period’, our hero finds that he seems to have conspired against himself, and sacrificed his huge paycheck [sic]for a few meaningless baubles. Only the envelope full of old tat can tell him why he did it…

6. Vanilla Sky (2001) Tom Cruise is the publishing heir fighting old-fart rivals on the board of directors in Cameron Crowe’s enigmatic sci-fi thriller. Not only did the initial marketing of the film not make clear that it was a PKD-style mindfuck, but in fact it takes well over an hour before it becomes clear that the film is science-fiction at all, as we begin to suspect that a mysterious cryogenics corporation may have something to do with the gaps in Cruise’s perception of the chronology of his tortured life. Rewarding, but you have to stick with it.

5. The Matrix (1999)There is no sequel. There is no second sequel. Coolly named office-monkey and freelance hacker Thomas Anderson finds that the 1999 he knows is just a computer-generated fiction designed to keep a genetically-harvested mankind in nasty green slime so that their bio-power can fuel the machines that have risen against them. The moment when Neo ‘pops’ is probably the best cinematic example of the kind of abreaction a mindfuck of this magnitude would actually cause when it sinks in.

4. A Beautiful Mind (2001) Russell Crowe plays tormented savant mathematician Jon Nash in Ron Howard’s biopic of the schizophrenic Nobel-winning scientist. CIA operative Ed Harris and college-pal Paul Bettany are the tormenting figures who may or may not actually exist…

3. Fight Club (1994) David Fincher directs again, in a now-classic mindfuck thriller that went a long way to changing the direction of the genre. IKEA-loving loser Edward Norton is dazzled by his new friend, the unconventional and insurrectionist Tyler Durden, who has plans to zero Western society by a physical assault on the West’s banking system. The unlikely pair seem to have little in common – by the end, we find they have literally everything in common…

2. Memento (2001) Batman Begins auteur Christopher Nolan made his name with this gritty Californian Film Noir, which finds assault-victim Guy Pearce unable to remember anything for more than five minutes, yet determined to solve the mystery of who killed his wife by tattooing clues on his body. Matrix veteran Joe Pantoliano makes his second venture into mindfuck territory as the cop apparently helping Pearce out – or is he…?

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1. Total Recall (1990) Arnie is the lowly construction worker dreaming of affording a trip to mars in Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 action/sci-fi outing, an ingenious adaptation and extension (by Alien creators Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett)of Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Ultra-violent but also ultra-clever, Dicks ideas –as in Paycheck– are so dazzling as to overcome the film’s many shortcomings.

Links: Jumpcut

Arguable contenders: Jacob’s Ladder, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, Life On Mars (S2/E8), The Jacket, La Jettee, Saw, Frailty, The Science Of Sleep, Waking Life, Adaptation, The Usual Suspects, Open Your Eyes, Brainscan.

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