I’m fascinated by the dichotomy caused by an unreliable narrator. Occasionally while watching a film, we know that the person telling us a story is intentionally lying. Other times, we don’t realize we’ve been betrayed until the film’s final scenes. Either way, it can be so thrilling to witness the world through an unreliable mind, even if only for a few hours. In regards to this post, please be warned, simply discussing such characters can inadvertently produce spoilers. I’m always strict about not spoiling films on this blog, but do proceed with caution here.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright isn’t narrated by the Jonathan Cooper character throughout, but it is Cooper’s flashback story at the beginning of the film that puts the plot in motion. And while Stage Fright may not be one of Hitchcock’s most known films, it’s an amusing little experiment all the same.
14. Fenton Meiks – Frailty (2001)
The funny thing about movies is that we often take what we hear at face value. When a character tells us a fact, we believe it as such, mainly because we don’t have any reason not to. But, as Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” And Fenton Meiks is one deceptive son of a bitch.
13. Joel Barish – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
What brings two people together? You lock eyes with someone on a train. You share a moment. You feel like you know them, and maybe you do. Maybe you’ve shared time – love and laughter and spite. Who knows, maybe you know them better than you could’ve dreamed.
12. Louise Howell – Possessed (1947)
Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed is told in flashback by an unstable woman name Louise (a fearless Joan Crawford). She tells tales of love and jealousy, murder and rage. But there are holes in her story, such as when she pushes someone down the stairs to their death, but then fails to find the body at the end of the stairwell. To understand how this could be, we must first consider the source.
11. The Detectives – True Detective (2014)
It took a few episodes to familiarize ourselves with the world of True Detective. Once settled, we realized that the older Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) were actually lying their asses off to the detectives interviewing them. But why? Who knew the answer to that question would be so profound?
10. Briony Tallis – Atonement (2007)
In Atonement’s best, most melancholic scene, we watch as an aged Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave, so strong) informs us of the real truth behind the fate of her sister. This scene knocked the wind out of me the first time I saw it. I literally had no idea it was coming.
9. Mark Whitacre – The Informant! (2009)
Mark Whitacre is the liar to end all liars. As the only real person on this list, Whitacre’s career deceit make his wrongdoings that much more notable. This man bullshitted his way to the top of the FBI, and for what? A little more money? A little more respect? So much of what Whitacre says in the film is complete nonsense, but what fun it is to sift through Matt Damon’s hilarious narration, desperately trying to pick out the facts.
8. The Narrator – Fight Club (1999)
“It’s called a ‘changeover.’ The movie goes on, and nobody in the audience has any idea.” Yep, pretty much sums up how we felt when we watched this film for the first time.
7. Patrick Bateman – American Psycho (2000)
I love that the debate about Patrick Bateman’s transgressions still lives on. Author Bret Easton Ellis says the story is an obvious satire about yuppie New York culture in the ‘80s. The film’s director, Mary Harron, says she intended every crime in the film to play as fact. We’ll never really know what is true and what is false, but that’s not exactly the point. What’s important to remember is that, in the end, this confession has meant nothing.
6. The Interviewees – Citizen Kane (1941)
Presumably, the best way to get to know someone who’s died is to speak to the people who knew him best. That’s the angle reporter Jerry Thompson takes when covering the life of Charles Foster Kane. Thompson interviews Kane’s friends, colleagues and his ex-wife, who all have varying perceptions on who Kane was. The result, Thompson learns, is that some men are never fully understood.
5. Verbal Kint – The Usual Suspects (1995)
The fun of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects is debating how much of Verbal Kint’s story is real, how much of it is fiction, and how much is pure fuckery.
“And like that… he’s gone.”
4. Francis – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
This German Expressionist masterpiece was one of the first films to implore a flashback narrative, which is an impressive feat in its own right. Equally remarkable is that the filmmakers created a story in which things were not at all as they seemed. Who knew that storytelling deceit would catch on as well as it did?
3. Leonard Shelby – Memento (2001)
Leonard Shelby’s “discovery” of the real John G. is one of my favorite moments in all of cinema. Up until this point in Memento, we think we know who Leonard is. We pity his plight and admire his perseverance. And then, like a devious little puzzle, everything clicks into place. Leonard is one of the most deceptive unreliable narrators I’ve ever seen, and the bitch of it is, he doesn’t even know it.
2. Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)
Much of the unique mysticism of Taxi Driver is due to its narrative structure. By shaping the film around the disturbed and contradictory mind of Travis Bickle, the audience is never sure what to expect. Travis’ occasional narration (taken from his journal entries) is hostile and often nonsensical. He trips up on words, repeats phrases and plots an illogical plan for a destructive, citywide cleanse. And while his voice over is sparse, it makes for my favorite character narration in film. Complex, haunting, and completely raging mad.
1. The Witnesses – Rashômon (1950)
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon could literally be titled, The Unreliable Narrators, as it is by far the film to best use the device. The film is about a brutal crime, and the individual perspectives of the people closest to it. We hear stories from witnesses, victims and accused criminals, all of which offer conflicting testimony. In just 88 minutes, Kurosawa paints a perfect and maddening picture of memory and the effect trauma and shock has on it. Who is right? Who is wrong? The world may never know. Exactly.