Movies where there is much more than meets the eye.
August 19, 2013 6:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for movies where paying careful attention to every frame and detail yields secrets that are quite different from the "main" surface story.

I.e., someone could watch the entire movie and think one thing about the plot, but another person could watch it and pick up on many clues and subtexts that completely alter the plot and twist it around. Possibly there's an overarching unexplained mystery, and many theories of what these clues explain, and some debate about it on forums.

Some examples I'm thinking of that gave me this feeling are Kubrick's movies The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, of which I've read really insightful essays that explain clues in every scene and detail that potentially change those movies entirely. I'd argue that Haneke's Cache would also qualify, since there are a few parts that had me freeze-framing and scrutinizing every inch of the screen (Ebert was still finding hidden stuff in it 4 years later.) Can anyone think of other significant examples?
posted by naju to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if you don't mind sticking with Kubrick and aren't turned off by slightly batty theorizing, there's the Moon Landing Hoax theory [youtube] of The Shining. It's maybe not entirely convincing, but it's fun and does point out some details you've probably missed.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:06 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Upstream Color and Primer (though I think both devolve to the end) have some useful subtext like this, as does A Separation. Density is what comes to mind. Also, the obvious: Fight Club.

But yeah, Carruth and Kubrick have a ton in common.
posted by tooloudinhere at 6:12 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Antichrist (Lars Von Trier)
Pi (Darren Aronofsky)
The Machinist
The Awakening (Nick Murphy)

I was also going to mention Primer and Fight Club as tooloudinhere just did.
posted by xenophile at 6:20 PM on August 19, 2013

Memento, to a certain extent.

I would say Mulholland Dr. fits into this category as well, although one could argue there isn't much of a surface story to begin with.
posted by Fister Roboto at 6:29 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mulholland Drive, The Spanish Prisoner, Brazil, Blow Up, and though I haven't yet seen he film, the book Life of Pi is like this. These are my very favorite types of movies.
posted by Brittanie at 7:02 PM on August 19, 2013

Best answer: Peter Greenaway's films are full of meaningful details that reward multiple viewings (especially if you are into art history), although they don't so much alter the plot. Try Drowning by Numbers, A Zed & Two Noughts, or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
posted by oulipian at 7:24 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: And Picnic at Hanging Rock.
posted by xenophile at 7:33 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Adaptation fits the bill nicely.

There are many layers, and after watching it probably 20 times I still enjoy and find new things.
posted by The Deej at 7:34 PM on August 19, 2013

Donnie Darko
posted by valoius at 7:37 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Given that you mentioned The Shining and assuming you like the meta idea about how people can think movies have lots of layers, you might enjoy Room 237, which just consists of Kubrick footage and various Shining obsessives discussing their theories.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:38 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Other ones I'd argue would qualify: Last Year at Marienbad, and Inland Empire (lots of small, easily missable clues in a movie that initially reads as incomprehensible.)

Any good links for Adaptation? I remember some narrative trickery, but didn't realize it had layers of stuff to discover.
posted by naju at 7:46 PM on August 19, 2013

Best answer: I thought that "Another Year" by Mike Leigh was a pretty powerful example of this. I could see how the central couple could be viewed as either saints or sadists, depending on what perspective you were coming from.

Mike Leigh seems good at this in general, actually.
posted by whistle pig at 8:05 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Any good links for Adaptation? I remember some narrative trickery, but didn't realize it had layers of stuff to discover.

The IMDB comments section has some good dissections. With the usual caveat that a certain percentage of commenters are dumb.

True, it plays out as a relatively straight forward movie, until the intentionally cliche ridden 3rd act. But the title itself is a clue to the layers. Adaptation referring to the act of writing a screenplay from a book, but also meaning the process of evolution in the natural world, as well as the ability (or inability) of a person to adapt to his situation. It's also based on layers of true events: the story of John Laroche, the orchid thief, the story of Susan Orlean, the author of the book The Orchid Thief, and the story of Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of the very movie itself.

There's much more to it than that; it really does benefit from repeated viewings.
posted by The Deej at 8:31 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just remembered another movie where I found the inner logic, motivations and symbolism to be remarkably complex on a scene-by-scene level: Noriko's Dinner Table.
posted by naju at 9:05 PM on August 19, 2013

CLOUD fucking ATLAS.

See the film. Read the book. See the film 10 more times!!

It's a whole new way to tell a story, and ENTIRELY underrated, except by Roger Ebert, who wrote about it...."I know I've just seen something important, and I don't know what it is."

This film was an answer to Kubrick, and the message of goodness is more true than anything Kubrick had to say.


On iTunes, the podcast ALWAYS RECORD for absolutely insane minutiae about lots of films like Donnie Darko, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and others.


Check out this blog by Rob Ager for minutiae about The Shining and other films - holy shit!!

And lastly, the documentary Room 237 about The Shining!!
posted by jbenben at 9:09 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, the podcast 42 MINUTES, also on iTunes for discussions like this on films like 2001, Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, etc., etc..
posted by jbenben at 9:11 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mike Leigh is brilliant at building up a film from a variety of small stories, so consider that something of a second. My ability to provide deeper suggestions for this feels a bit limited, but I'd suggest you spend some time with the Sight & Sound poll, since most films that rank highly on that should provide some depth over multiple screenings. Rules Of The Game is often held up as an excellent example of a single story made up of many players with different roles and needs.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:09 PM on August 19, 2013

The Big Lebowski, so much.
posted by lunasol at 10:13 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The "director's cut" of Bladerunner has a bunch of subtle visual clues to a major reveal about the story which alters your point of view of everything that happens in it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:52 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Woody Allen's /Hannah and Her Sisters/ has lots of jokes along those lines - the names of stores and whatnot in the background give an hysterical commentary on what's going on in the scenes.
posted by colin_l at 6:11 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The episode of How I Met Your Mother where Stella runs out.

Shutter Island.

Twelve Monkeys. F*ing Brilliant. I saw it two nights in a row at the movies, it was THAT good. You could also say Brazil is smart as well, but I never liked that movie. Make sure you see both endings though.

Waking Life. Kind of.

Also Bridesmaids is kind of like this. You think it's a standard "her friend is leaving her" movie, then you realize SHE'S the problem.

Better than Adaptation would be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Same screenwriter.

nthing Donnie Darko - with the caveat that it never fails to give me nightmares.

The Matrix. Of course.

I thought Cloud Atlas was a cheap narrative but "let's tell it non-linearly, so that's cool, right?" Never read the book.

Has anyone mentioned American Psycho? That movie is creepy good, with a totally unreliable narrator.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:04 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Back to the Future trilogy. Seriously. Here's a fan page that includes some of the easter eggs in the film, and these FAQ pages by the writers list even more little details.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:31 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also Solaris (new and old version) and Total Recall (Arnold Schwarzenegger version). Cheesy special effects and wooden acting aside, TR is an amazing film and it's a shame it doesn't achieve the same level of respect as other sci-fi films of its era.

Vanilla Sky
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:02 AM on August 20, 2013

Best answer: The Limits Of Control: the more you pay attention to everything that you see in front of you, the more you will understand, and the less you will know.
posted by Freen at 9:19 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ingmar Bergman's Persona.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:35 AM on August 20, 2013

Best answer: Not really layers, but, Gosford Park has more and more details in the corners of the action that become more apparent and offer richness and texture the more one views it.
posted by entropone at 10:44 AM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, Barton Fink (Coen brothers) does this. There are so many ways to watch that movie and there's a great body of acedemic literature on it as well.
posted by lemerle at 11:08 AM on August 20, 2013

Best answer: Northfork, (Ebert review) while perhaps narratively light, is fascinating and, I think, worth rewatching for your purposes. (Northfork previously on ask.)
posted by gauche at 11:34 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is basically the main conceit of The Usual Suspects. Although perhaps not layered enough.
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:00 PM on August 20, 2013

Not a movie (I know, I know) but the best example I can think of: Read or watch a typical version of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, then pick up David Mamet's version of the play and read his analysis of the characters' motivations. Blew my mind at the time.
posted by hamsterdam at 12:15 PM on August 20, 2013

Best answer: Here's a pretty interesting analysis of Lynch's The Straight Story along those lines (courtesy a link from The Whelk).
posted by aka burlap at 1:24 PM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Re-reading the question, my suggestion of "Back to the Future" isn't quite right, since the hidden details don't radically alter the main plot.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:51 PM on August 20, 2013

The Quiet Earth
posted by WalkerWestridge at 6:34 PM on August 20, 2013

These guys are obviously fucking amatures! The Big Lebowski, of course.
posted by clark at 7:28 AM on August 21, 2013

Came in to say Cloud Atlas. Also, The Sound of My Voice is very open to interpretation, but I think it makes sense when you think about it. Martha Marcy May Marlene has some elements of this. Life of Pi is like this to a lesser degree, as are The Usual Suspects and the Sixth Sense. Exit Through the Gift Shop is interesting in the sense of trying to figure out what's real and what's (essentially) a prank.
posted by cnc at 2:21 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Repo Man
posted by AJaffe at 2:05 PM on August 22, 2013

Synecdoche, New York

The best film of the decade, according to Roger Ebert.

I watched 5 or 6 times and I still find new ideas and hidden stuff.
posted by florzinha at 5:59 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you can get through the shocking violence of Irreversible, the essay "In the Garden of Earthly Delights" gives an amazing interpretation of the movie. I'd never have thought of it in that light.
posted by guy72277 at 8:27 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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