10 Movies That Are Set Inside a Character’s Mind

The mind is a malleable place. Thoughts and emotions intersect and mingle in productive and counterproductive ways. In the psyche, synapses are firing off and reaching conclusions, some more favorable than others. The brain holds these functions and malfunctions, but the mind processes them.

The brain is the car, it can take you where you want to go. The mind is the steering wheel, choosing how you get there, each route and direction you take. With the right mindset, a person avoids accidents, collisions, and fender benders. Thoughts become things, as they say. The mind of a character reveals who they are, where they are going, and why.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Vanilla Sky 2001
Paramount Pictures

Vanilla Sky follows the infidelity of David Ames, a magazine publisher by day and playboy by night. He has a fling with Sofia Serrano, a woman he met at a party. Unbeknownst to him, his other lover, Julie Gianni, followed him there. When he departs from Sofia’s apartment, Julie offers him a ride home.

Filled with resentment, Julie crashes the car, killing herself and leaving David disfigured and distraught. David falls into depression, creating regretful and violent visions he discovers are a lucid dream as part of cryonic suspension his psychologist administered.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Scene from the movie Eyes Wide Shut

Warner Bros.

Eyes Wide Shut is based on the 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), in which Dr. Bill Harford’s wife Alice admits to having sexual fantasies involving another man. Bill is taken aback by Alice’s honesty. After attempts at being seduced, Bill’s curiosity grows and leads him to a secret society where masked members engage in sexual exhibitions.

Bill’s identity and involvement in the society put him and others at risk until he returns his costume. Finding the mask on the bed next to his wife, Bill isn’t sure if Alice’s infidelity was just a dream or a fantasy come true.

The Matrix (1999)

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix
Warner Bros.

The Matrix is the simulated reality that has imprisoned humanity. Computer programmer Thomas Anderson, known as the hacker Neo, finds this cyberpunk dystopia and freedom fighters who have escaped the Matrix. He joins their rebellion to unplug humans from the bioelectric grasp of their AI masters. Suspended animation is a fate worse than death, considering how it coddles the mind like pickles in a jar.

Inside Out (2015)

The Inside Out emotions
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Inside Out explores the emotional toll of 11-year-old Riley, who is moving for her dad’s new job. She has a hard time adjusting to her new home, causing her emotions to conflict with each other. A homesick Riley causes Sadness to turn her happy memories into sad ones.

Fear, Disgust, and Anger try to remedy her feelings and memories, but only make her emotionally unavailable. Riley eventually makes up her mind, expressing all her emotions and accepting her new life.

Related: American Psycho: Looking into Patrick Bateman’s Mind from a Psychologist’s Perspective

Inception (2010)

Leonardo Dicaprio and Cillian Murphy in Inception
Warner Bros.

Inception deals with corporate “extractors”, or professional thieves hired to steal information from their targets’ subconscious. They use a dreaming device to implant an idea into the victim and false awakenings to cover their tracks. The process is known as “inception”, as these artificial notions are acted out in real life. The wrong ideas backfire as the conscious mind fights for dominance, almost trapping the extractors in the subconscious.

Related: Why The Creator May Change People’s Minds About AI

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Tim Robbins in Jacob's Ladder.
TriStar Pictures

Jacob’s Ladder is a psychological horror that follows foot soldier Jacob Singer and his experience in the Vietnam War. He is stabbed during an attack in the jungle, before waking up four years later in New York City. Jacob is haunted by visions of his life before and during the war. His distress is not unfounded, as he has been told that he is dead. Jacob believes his visions are due to a military experiment. His investigation finds his life flashing before his eyes, revealing that he and his mind are on the brink of death.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Stranger Than Fiction (2006) Will Ferrell

Sony Pictures Releasing

Stranger Than Fiction is about IRS agent Harold Crick, who follows a strict routine. One day, he hears a voice narrating his every move and realizes his fictional existence. Harold’s organized life is turned on its head when he learns that he will die soon.

He confronts his maker, author Karen Eiffel, who shares how he will die. The writer, feeling responsible for Harold’s circumstances, revises the ending, giving him a new lease on life.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Focus Features

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a deep dive into the love and memory of a dysfunctional relationship. Joel and Clementine are a couple who have their memories of each other erased. The procedure for Joel reawakens happier times with Clementine, causing his mind to race. In a desperate attempt to keep the memory of Clementine alive, Joel hides her in other unrelated memories. They meet again, learning to understand their bitter memories and build better ones instead.

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club by David Fincher
20th Century Fox

Fight Club is a cult classic about the dissonance of a man’s life as a consumer and obedient worker. He fakes illnesses to find relief in therapy groups, but being an impostor leaves him just as disconnected from the world. He meets soap salesman Tyler Durden who begins a fight club with him shortly after his apartment is destroyed in an explosion. The man quits his job and extorts money from his boss to turn their fight club into a vandalist group. The man learns too late that Tyler was the catalyst for his change in character, that Tyler is him.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz cast

The Wizard of Oz tells the story of farm girl Dorothy Gale, who faces a tornado with her family. She gets separated and knocked unconscious by the storm inside the farmhouse. The house rises and falls in the land of Oz, home to wicked witches, one good witch, munchkins, flying monkeys, and the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is joined by the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion on the yellow brick road to Emerald City, where Oz will help her get back home.

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