Intelligence in Modern Film – The Mind-Bender

The 2000s have seen a rise in the number of intelligent, complex, plot-driven films that challenge the viewer. These films are somewhat similiar to film noir, in that they often feature a protagonist rather than a hero, and often have either downbeat, depressing endings, or endings that at the very least are thought-provoking and keep the film in mind for weeks. These films are also, often, genre-spanning – sometimes recognizably science fiction, sometimes not – and sometimes the science fiction element is only introduced at the very end. I call this new style of film, “The Mind Bender”.

What is a mind bender? Mind benders are films in which certain important information is withheld from the audience, and when revealed, that information drastically changes the audience’s perception of the film and its characters. Mind benders are films which call attention to the fact they they are films, and the techniques and conventions of film. Mind benders include films with unusual structures, such as circler films with no beginning or ending, or films told in reverse or backwards. Often they are morally ambiguous films, somewhat like film noir, but without the fedora-wearing trope. With the moral ambiguity comes a sense that often, mind benders are also depressing films with downbeat endings. Most of all, mind benders are films that require close attention. They often require multiple viewings to understand fully. Mind benders are complicated, adult films, that never underestimate the intelligence of the audience. In contrast, these films depend on the audience being intelligent enough to understand them.

One form of mind bender is a film in which certain information is with-held from the audience, information which changes the entire perception of the film. For example, M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film, The Sixth Sense. Audience members often don’t want to reveal the secret to their friends and family, simply recommending the film – because knowing The Secret ruins the film. The Prestige (2006, Dir. Christopher Nolan) also relies for its impact, the revelations and change in audience perception of the three main characters.

Another type of film that falls into the mind bender category is the film that calls attention to the conventions of films that all of us, as audience members, take for granted. Inception (2010, Dir. Christopher Nolan) does this by, not breaking the fourth wall, but by taking conventions of film and turning them into indications that the character is dreaming. For example, two characters are sitting in a cafe and the one asks the other one, “How did you get here?” Unable to remember, the young girl becomes confused. The first character then explains she can’t remember because she is dreaming – and you can never remember the beginning of a dream. This points directly at the film and television convention where two characters are in New York and one talks about going to Paris, and the next scene shows them sitting in an sidewalk cafe with the Eiffel Tower in the background, and maybe even a subtitle that says, Paris, France. We don’t see the character go home, find her passport, pack, drive to the airport, buy a ticket, go through security, wait, get on the plane, the plane flying, the character going through customs and security again, and then the character arriving at the Parisian cafe. We assume they took a plane, and just accept that (a) the characters were in New York and are now in Paris, (b) they took a plane to get there. And we, the audience assumes, at least some time has passed. Often one can easily assume the scene in Paris is the next day. There was a time when an insert of a plane flying (or taking off) was used to indicate international travel, but that’s seldom used anymore because it’s accurately viewed as a waste of time. Yet, Inception draws attention to this idea by making sudden scene changes an indication that one is dreaming. And, Inception itself is an allegory about film itself.

The Prestige (2006, Dir. Christopher Nolan) is a film that calls attention to editing, because the story is told in reverse order. Many films such as Sunset Blvd (1950, Dir. Billy Wilder) and Double Indemnity (1944, Dir. Billy Wilder) start at the end, then flash back to explain the protagonist’s predicament. But in those films, the story is told sequentially after the initial scene, and narration is used to further orient the viewer. The Prestige, however, is told in a series of interweaving flashbacks, with each preceding the previous one. Not only do these flashbacks explain the storyline, but they also change the viewer’s perception of the characters – another key characteristic of the mind bender film.

All mind bender films require deep concentration by the viewer. They assume the viewer is intelligent and can follow a story in which the information is given out bit by bit – in reverse order, for example, the film Memento (2000, Dir. Christopher Nolan) is actually told backwards. Each scene in color in Memento precedes the one before it. The black and white white scenes, however, move forward in time – and act almost like a commentary on the color scenes. So Memento is, in a sense, two films in one. That the main story is told backwards in Memento both emphasizes the main character’s “condition”, and calls attention to film editing as the viewer must re-order the scenes mentally to fully understand the film. These films are challenging, which makes them enjoyable. It’s an intellectual exercise based on figuring out what is going on, rather than excitement at what happens next.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Dir. Michel Gondry), besides being a rather depressing romantic tragedy (it certainly isn’t a comedy), combines elements of The Prestige and Inception and pre-dates both films. The film calls attention to editing – though not quite as clearly as The Prestige, where the viewer is constantly re-ordering the scenes in his or her own head, but as Joel Barish’s (Jim Carrey) memories break down – by having the scenes literally break down, elements, sets, furniture, even buildings destroy themselves to indicate that Joel can no longer remember them. This is something that Inception does as well, in a grander and even more fantastic style as entire scenes rip themselves apart to indicate not only that the characters are in a dream – but that they are realizing they are in a dream.

Looper (2012, Dir. Rian Johnson) is another mind-bender film. Looper imagines a world, where the secrets of time travel have actually been discovered – then time travel is made illegal because of the obvious problems it could create. So, of course, it becomes a tool of the mob. The main characters are all mob assassins, paid in silver, to kill people that the mob wants to get rid of. Living in an underground economy, and using their silver to pay for what they want, these assassins mostly hang out in mob bars – buying a drug they take by squeezing it in their eyes, as well as alcohol and female companionship. These assassins wait for the day they “close the loop”, and receive a payoff in gold for their final assassination. The film follows one assassin, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who discovers that all the loops are being closed, and then gets his final assignment. However, the way it’s supposed to work is that the assassin kills someone, then checks for payment. However, Joe realizes that something is wrong, and checks first – and realizes the person he has to kill is an older version of himself – he lets his older self (Bruce Willis) go. This, of course, causes problems in its own right – and the film shows the audience, graphically, what happens to a different Looper assassin who doesn’t fulfill a contract. The film’s shocking and disturbing ending has Joe break the loop in a novel, effective, self-sacrificing, yet depressing way. The film is violent, after all, it is about professional assassins, but I liked it, because the acting, and visuals were good, the plot was unique, and the film made you think. Looper is another intelligent mind-bender film. Looper is also a circler film, with no real beginning or ending.

The Butterfly Effect (2004, Dirs. Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber) is another film about time travel. I saw it when it was originally released in 20004, but not since. What I remember about the film was that involved the main character using time travel to try to improve the life of the girl who lived next to him when he was a child. However, everything he does to try to change things makes both their lives worse, not better. In the end, the time traveler eliminates himself from history – and the present version ends-up in an insane asylum talking about people and events that don’t exist. Because no one else knows about these people and events he’s assumed to be insane. The same thing had happened to his father (or another close relative). Although The Butterfly Effect also is intelligent and makes you think, I personally didn’t like it because of the depressing end – and the raw treatment of cruelty to children and animals was inappropriate.

Overall, though Mind Bender films are great to see once, they are intelligent, and they trust that the audience is also intelligent. Mind Bender films call attention to film techniques such as editing and to film conventions. Often, because of their complex stories, Mind bender films are ones that film viewers like to see more than once.