Upon settling in to watch a film, viewers implicitly and almost immediately put their trust in what they are watching; the events and characters unfolding before them. So when a film suddenly, and often quite drastically, shifts into revelatory territory, or a seemingly simple and trustworthy character unexpectedly turns your observations on their head, the shock factor that ripples through the audience along with sounds of whispered ‘no’s and gasps make great moments of cinema – uniting viewers with a sense of vulnerability and utter reliance on their filmic narrators.
Such erratic narrators come in all shapes and sizes, and with varying levels of infidelity – most are often unaware of their duplicity themselves until the time of the reveal to the audience. Whether the changeability is caused by amnesia, death, a twisted kind of coping mechanism or indeed just plain deceit, there is no doubt an ever growing circle of films famed for the unreliability of their narrators, and the multitude of emotive responses – shock, joy, grief, indignance – that they inspire in audiences.
In no particular order, here are five of my favourite films featuring this insecure method of storytelling. Please read with caution, there are spoilers ahead!
Shutter Island (2010) Dir.: Martin Scorsese
U.S. marshals Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of the criminally insane Rachel Solando, a patient of Ashcliffe Hospital on Shutter Island, Boston. Encountering resistance from the staff and little evidence to aid his investigation, Daniels becomes increasingly frustrated. He reveals that the arsonist responsible for the death of his wife, Andrew Laeddis, is also contained on the island, and also missing. During a bid to break into the out-of-bounds lighthouse on the island, Daniels encounters the elusive Dr. Cawley at its top.
The doctor reveals Daniels is Andrew Laeddis, and his deceased wife ‘Dolores Chanal’ actually Rachel Solando, their names acting as anagrams of their true identities. Andrew murdered his manic depressive wife after she drowned their children, hence her absence on the Island. Struggling to cope with the reality of his actions, Laeddis decisively continues to act as his alter-ego Daniels, ensuring himself a quick lobotomy and an escape from his painful past.
Once the truth of Daniels’ identity unfurls, element after element of the film’s plot – which audiences have been faithfully following for two hours now – are revealed to be part of an elaborate ruse to give Daniels one last chance at embracing reality before his fantasy must be ended for good. Chuck was never his partner but in fact a doctor, the nurses and residents all in league. The investigation for Rachel never existed. Daniels was the murderer of his own murderous wife. With such a complex, and wide reaching, web of deception spun around him DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels has to be one of the definitive unreliable narrators of modern film.
Life of Pi (2012) Dir.: Ang Lee
One of 2012’s biggest blockbusters, the visually stunning Life of Pi tells the extraordinary tale of Pi Patel, a young man stranded on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger, humorously named Richard Parker, after the ship carrying his family and the contents of their zoo tragically sank in a violent storm. Life of Pi begins with a novelist asking Pi Patel for his life story. The audience are instantly placed alongside the journalist – we are hanging onto Pi’s every word just as he is. Via vivid flashbacks, we are treated to scenes of dominance disputes between young Pi and Richard Parker, who viciously kills the remaining survivors other than Pi – an orang-utan, a spotted hyena and a zebra. Along with this violence and tragedy, the audience are given the opportunity also to marvel over Pi’s innovative means of survival and moments of epiphany, and the eventual – if still somewhat tense – harmony between the man and tiger as each weakens with the passing of every sunset on the water.
After finally reaching land, after 227 days at sea, the audience watch happily as Pi is rescued and Richard Parker stalks into the coastal jungle. Back in the present, the similarly wowed novelist asked what happened next. Pi reveals how two insurance agents questioned him for the ‘real events’. Pi tells an alternate version of the story whereby each surviving animal and passenger of the lifeboat is in fact symbolic of human survivors – the gentle orang-utan being Pi’s mother, the zebra a sailor, the hyena a malicious cook on board the ship, and finally Richard Parker being Pi; forced to use the flesh of the cook as sustenance and bait to ensure survival. Upon Pi’s asking which story they preferred, both the novelist and the insurance agents selected the fantastical survival with a tiger.
The audience are offered the same choice. To believe in an incredible journey against all odds of survival, with the added threat of one hungry 480lb adult Bengal tiger… Or the all too uncomfortable version of events where the monstrosities mankind are capable of to ensure their own safety and survival, at any cost, are explored in graphic detail. Unlike the majority of the other unreliable narrators in this compilation, Pi is only too aware of his duplicity throughout the telling of the fantastical tale…but is a tale truly all that it was? Life of Pi’s narrator is not only ambiguous, but never completely reveals the entire truth of events.
Fight Club (1999) Dir.: David Fincher
Known for one of the most memorable twists in modern cinematic history, Fincher’s cult classic Fight Club follows a world weary, office job worker known to the audience only as ‘the narrator’. After losing his apartment in a sudden explosion (cause unknown), he moves in with soap salesman Tyler Durden, whom he met on board a business flight. Attending support groups under the pretence of being a victim of multiple illness and abuses in order to alleviate his insomnia; our narrator is soon convinced by Durden to establish their own group – Fight Club. Staging recreational fights at first outside a bar, then as popularity builds, to a large basement venue, the club snowballs into a powerful anti-corporate movement which spreads nationwide, attracting followers even within the corporations they are attempting to bring down.
Leaving the remnants of his carefully constructed and sheltered lifestyle behind him, the Narrator asks Durden for increased involvement in the organisation. Suddenly Durden disappears, leaving our narrator confused and frustrated as he is left to handle the death of one of their members. Deciding to shut the organisation down, The Narrator tracks Durden to a number of Fight Clubs in the country, established after their initial success. He has no luck until one club owner addresses him as Tyler Durden. The Narrator calls Durden’s girlfriend, Marla who addresses him the same way. Durden finally appears to The Narrator, explaining that they are split personalities; that when he was supposedly sleeping, it was Durden who was in control, running the organisation and wooing Marla. Things turn aggressive as The Narrator tries to bring down Durden’s plot to destroy a credit company building, ultimately ending with The Narrator at gunpoint. Realising that if they are truly one and the same, he himself could control the gun; The Narrator takes control and shoots himself through the cheek, but effectively destroying Tyler Durden who collapses, a gunshot wound to the head. Too late to halt the explosion, The Narrator and Marla hold hands as they watch from a safe distance the sky fill with flames.
The big daddy of twist endings, Edward Norton’s character The Narrator is an unstable narrator from the moment he blew up his own apartment, although unknown to both himself and the audience until the finale of the film. The graphic fights between The Narrator and Tyler Durden, the jealousy surrounding the sexual relationship between he and Marla, the late night escapades to steal fat for soap making – all of these were battles and feats conjured by The Narrator’s warring mind. The revelation that the charismatic Tyler Durden was but simply one facet of his consciousness remains shocking to audiences over a decade later. Fight Club’s Narrator is unreliable as not only does his mental state influence the physical actions of his and Tyler’s throughout the film, but also the characterisation of each personality and how the reveal affects audience empathy with the character[s?!].
The Fall (2006) Dir.: Tarsem Singh
An emotional rollercoaster ride of a film, Tarsem Singh’s The Fall constantly switches between the sad and dreary hospital ward housing a paralysed stuntman, and the vivid fantastical story of love, friendship and revenge he animatedly tells Alexandria, a little girl in also in the hospital with a broken arm. The stuntman, Roy tells the story with vigour and enthusiasm for the first third of the film, inserting characters into his story obviously inspired by his workmates in the film industry before his accident and by his fellow hospital patients alike. After Alexandria shows Roy a photograph of her gap-toothed father, the main character of his story, The Red Bandit, became the man in the photo. However, upon learning of his death, Roy quickly replaces the Red Bandit with his own likeness instead. In another scene, despite earlier introducing The Red Bandit as being Spanish, he decides to make him French instead. When caught out by Alexandria (via voiceover) who noticed the change in ethnicity, the onscreen Red Bandit looks sheepish, aware of the misinformation.
This cements the notion that Roy is our narrator and he has the power to change things on a whim. As viewers, we can but watch. Like Alexandria, the audience become absolutely captivated by his story and are ever eager for more. It is at this point which Roy becomes an unreliable narrator. As his moods turn increasingly dark as he gradually realises he will never walk again, his love for the lead actress would never be fully requited and what little they had was now firmly over, the story too, shifts into much darker territory.
Suicidal, Roy bribes Alexandria with the promise of more story-telling if she will steal morphine pills for him. Innocently, she complies and he takes enough to overdose. Midway through his promised story, both Roy and the Red Bandit fall unconscious. As an audience, we are helpless – our narrator has abruptly stopped as has the story. Alexandria, dissatisfied with this turn of events, puts herself into the story as the Red Bandit’s daughter and tries there to wake him up, but to no avail. Puzzled, she leaves only to return the next day to find Roy alive though completely miserable. She tries to steal more pills for him, but falls from the cabinet resulting in a head injury. She awakens to find him beside her in a wheelchair, drunk and full of guilt. Immediately she pleads for the end of the story. He complies, but in a radically different tone. As The Red Bandit and his newly appeared daughter near their target of revenge, the evil Governor Odious (the lead actor of Roy’s film who stole the lead actresses’ heart from him), Roy kills each and every companion that had accompanied them on their travels, much to Alexandria’s utter despair. Finally, as the Red Bandit is close to death himself at the hands of Odious, she screams – both in the story and in the ward – “I don’t want you to die”. This is the jolt Roy needed, as he spins the story entirely around, besting Governor Odious in combat and walking away from the suddenly amorous Evelyn (the actress). The ever-changing tonality of The Fall to match the narrator’s current mood and emotions makes for some really emotive viewing and firmly labels Roy as an unreliable narrator.
Memento (2000) Dir.: Christopher Nolan
Of course when thinking of unstable narrators, you think Memento. Nolan’s psychological thriller revolves around Leonard Shelby, a sufferer of anterograde amnesia, the inability to retain recent memories. Leonard is forced to record his observations through notes, tattoos and Polaroid photographs. This instantly infers that Leonard is not the most reliable of narrators, reliant on such vague and random information. Indeed, one of his many tattoos reads “Do not trust yourself” – the first clue for the audience. As the film progresses, constantly switching back and forth between the colourful present and monochrome snatches of the past, we learn that Leonard is on the trail of a man, accomplice to the rape and murder of his wife. With tattoos and notes to guide him, Leonard is sure that he has killed the man who murdered his wife, he need only locate the other – one ‘John G.’ Leonard’s contact Natalie, a bartender, runs a match on John G’s license plate for him. The plate numbers align with Teddy’s, a contact of Leonard’s – he takes Teddy out to an abandoned building and kills him.
The finale of the film flashes back to the beginning – confusing, right? – where it is revealed that Teddy was an undercover cop who had successfully killed, together with Leonard, his wife’s rapist over a year ago. He reveals that it was Leonard himself who killed his diabetic wife via an insulin overdose, after the attack. Unable to process the information that he himself was responsible for the death of his wife and now had no life purpose, Leonard makes no note of this revelation, instead taking note of Teddy’s license plate and the words ‘Do not trust him’ – the note which leads to future events already witnessed by the audience.
Complex, non-linear films such as this require full concentration as it is, so throw in a narrator as unstable as Leonard Shelby and audiences are completely at the film-maker’s mercy. In Memento, they can’t be sure exactly when in the timeline of events actions are taking place, never mind whether they center around truth or deception. Leonard’s amnesia marks him as an unreliable narrator and the film’s plot having to constantly jump between events mirrors the effect of amnesia, the end affect being that the entirety of the film is unstable – not knowing where and the film will start and end until it has already happened.
These are but just a few instances of unreliable narration, other noteworthy films include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Gondry), Inception (2010, Nolan) and Big Fish (2003, Burton). Such abrupt twists and tonal changes can have an adverse effect on spectatorship – inspiring claims of “I saw that coming” or in some cases, even alternate endings and theories – but it also provides some brilliant, and sometimes even bonding, cinematic moments of complete shock and sudden realisation.