Twist Week: The Joy of the unreliable narrator

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The Unreliable Narrator: A narrator in a movie, play or literature who’s reliability has been compromised.

This post contains spoilers for many films featuring unreliable narrators

You can’t discuss Twist Week without talking about the great use of unreliable narrators in the movies. Some films live or die on their perspective and when you realise that the perspective you’ve been watching has been a lie, remembered wrong or even the mad thoughts of an insane individual, it is easy for an audience to feel “side-swiped.”

It has been used in movies since the very first “twist-film” back in 1920 with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In that, the whole movie was the mad ramblings of the narrator. Not bad for a silent film from the 1920s. If done well it can be very effective, if one poorly it can feel like a cheap rug-pull.

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A master of the fabricated story

It is much easier to examine the moments it has been done successfully and there are plenty. Two that come to mind hold some of the greatest twists in cinema. For starters you get the unreliable narrator who is being so through choice. The narrator who is purposely lying the other characters (and subsequently the audience by proxy). The greatest example is Kevin Spacey’s Verbal in The Usual Suspects.  The twist comes when you discover the whole movie has been pieced together by parts on the pin-board behind the detective and that Verbal is the principle villain Keyser Soze.

The same has been attempted more recently. Though only a loose narration technique, the diaries of “murder-victim” Amy in Gone Girl are also a complete fabrication and used as a device to trick the police (and the audience too). It works well, especially as the twist is before the third-act rather than buried deep within the finale.

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Some are unaware they are an unreliable narrator

Those are through choice. Some people can’t help but be unreliable narrators. This comes in many different forms, from mental illness, self-denial or even a coping mechanism for something much worse. Mental illness is achieved best in Memento. Christopher Nolan’s cult movie starring a constantly confused Guy Pearce who suffers from an inability to make new memories. The whole movie hinges on the idea that we are discovering facts as he is, making each new event unreliable in itself. Add to this the idea that his story about Sammy Jankis may not be about a insurance case at all but something much worse and you have a movie where the unreliable narrator keeps the audience on their toes the whole time.

It can also change the whole dynamic of a movie too. A coping mechanism to get a character through a situation or help them with their existence. Once you find out that The Narrator in Fight Club is both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, you can’t help but question everything that has gone before. It also forces you to re-watch the movie and realise how well that transition takes place.

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Maybe you can’t trust this story either…

It can also be so much subtler. Life of Pi is not a movie you’d associate with a twist but an interview at the end of the movie, which substitutes each of the animals in the story with human characters from the beginning, makes for a much more tragic and morbid story and offers a fresh perspective on the whole movie.

Of course, the worse of the unreliable narrators is when we aren’t even sure they are unreliable. Debate still rages to whether in American Psycho, Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman actually killed the people we watched him dispatch through the movies run-time. Even the original novel’s writer and the movie’s director can’t agree, both taking opposing sides of the argument. When you can’t even trust that an unreliable narrator is actually unreliable, what hope do you have?

Overall, as long as movies want to contain a rug-pull twist and catch the audience off-guard, there will always be unreliable narrators. From those purposefully lying, to those unaware their stories are fake at all, it also adds to a great device which can be executed brilliantly if used well. Let me know below of the unreliable narrators I may have missed…

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Is he reliable or not?


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