The 10 Most Mind-Bending Psychological Thrillers Of The 21st Century

6. Donnie Darko (2001)

Considered a modern day cult classic, Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Donnie as a troubled teenager is still considered one of his best performances to date. The movie begins with Donnie sleepwalking and dreaming of a person in a frightening rabbit costume called Frank who tells him that the world will end soon. Upon waking up in the morning and walking home, he finds that he narrowly missed his death as a jet crashed into his bedroom. After this point, his dreams of Frank begin more frequently and Donnie is seen in therapy sessions. He begins to be obsessed with time travel and the possibility of parallel timelines/universes as doomsday approaches closer and he begins to devise a plan on what he should do.

The movie balances various sub-genres such as sci-fi, horror, mystery and teen romance, with each getting its own space to play out fully. Add to that, the movie has several A-list celebrities including: Maggie Gyllenhaal (playing his sister in the movie as well), Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Seth Rogen and Jena Malone, so it isn’t hard to see why the film is so beloved.

Something so interesting about Donnie Darko is that it is to this day considered one of the best portrayals of mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia or psychosis in modern movies. Though the movie never directly confirms this (Donnie is accused of not taking his medication) so much of the symbolism combined with the disconcerting hallucinations, depersonalization and astral projections, do seem to imply at something of that nature, taking the already unsettling plot to another level.


7. Memento (2000)


Christopher Nolan directed and wrote the screenplay (earning him an Academy award nomination) for Memento, his second movie at that time and it opened on the box office to great success, amassing a commendable $40 million worldwide and high praise from critics.

The protagonist of Memento, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is a former insurance investigator who suffers from a rare type of short term memory loss after a traumatic accident. This hampers his quest to find his wife’s (Jorja Fox) rapist and killer, ‘John G’. Shelby works with an ex-client of his, Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) who also suffers from anterograde amnesia, and learns ways to stay focused and retain information, making him resort to using polaroid photos, tattoos, and notes to keep track of his progress.

The movie follows a non-linear timeline with the viewers getting glimpses of what happened to his wife and other parts of Shelby’s past. There are several other side characters who cross paths with Shelby, such as Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who plays a bartender and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), though every time he meets them, he can’t recall them.

Memento focuses on the helplessness that comes with a failing and unreliable memory and takes the viewers on a journey with a very determined character who despite all odds is focused on exacting revenge.


8. The Handmaiden (2016)

Kim Tae-Ri - The Handmaiden

Set in 1930s Korea under Japanese rule, and based on the book Fingersmith by Sarah Walters, The Handmaiden is divided into three parts, portraying the story from the perspective of three different characters and follows the story of a con man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) who hires a pickpocket, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) to act as a handmaiden for a reclusive Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and is instructed to encourage her to marry Count Fujiwara in an effort to swindle the Heiress out of her inheritance by declaring her not sound of mind and having her committed to an asylum.

What makes this movie so memorable is its ability to completely flip the narrative repeatedly and include so many twists that the audience is left speechless and glued to their seats. With beautiful cinematography and colorful period costuming that only adds to the sinister and overall unsettling tone of the movie, The Handmaiden doesn’t shy away from taboo topics and explores themes such as sexuality, betrayal and violence in depth.


9. Exam (2009)


Though it didn’t garner much success on the box office, Exam began to be considered a cult classic by critics and viewers overtime and is considered one of the most notable psychological thrillers of all time.

This flick, albeit a low budget one with relatively unknown actors (save for Gemma Chan), defied all odds by the taking the audience on such a winding road, keeping tensions high. The premise of the movie centers around 8 applicants who gather in a room for a corporate job where they are given 80 minutes to answer a single question, keeping in mind three rules. When the candidates flip the page, they are shocked to find it blank.

The candidates then scramble to understand what exactly they need to do to be hired, with some forming alliances amongst themselves, hoping teamwork is the key to be hired. With the clock ticking, they soon start to distrust each other and try to do whatever is necessary to be hired, with the candidates manipulating each other in an effort to win.

Exam does an excellent job at heightening the level of suspense gradually by slightly piquing the viewer’s curiosity in the beginning to building an almost uncomfortable sense of suspense and anticipation as the 80-minute timer draws to an end. The movie examines human nature under a tense and treacherous environment, illustrating the different ways people react to situations and the sheer lengths they will go to get what they want.


10. Men (2022)

From the director of Ex Machina (2014) and Annilation (2018), came one of the most underrated flicks of last year. Men begins with the protagonist, Harper (Jessie Buckley) arriving at a country side cottage for two weeks and interacting with the overzealous landlord Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), after the tragic death of her husband. Upon exploring the town and nearby forest of the isolated countryside, she begins to suspect that she is being stalked.

The movie doesn’t shy away from its use of heavy symbolism and at various instances depicts gruesome imagery, occult practices, desolate places and keeps the audience guessing till the very end of the movie. Rory Kinnear plays every single man in this movie (safe for the ex-Husband) in what is yet another uncanny aspect of the movie, whether that be the Police Officer she calls when she finds a naked man at the cottage or the local priest, and his ability to act out all of those different men so distinctly just adds to the sinister atmosphere the movie cultivates. Men takes a never-before-seen approach to depicting the aftereffects of trauma, abuse, loneliness and guilt and has so much to say about men and women and their roles, especially when it comes to the circle of life.