The Unreliable Narrator in film

Stories told from a first-person account involve a narrator walking us through a film’s events. When the narrator is not trustworthy or his credibility is in doubt for some reason, he becomes an unreliable narrator. 

Or perhaps the truth is just stretched… a bit like the narrator in Big Fish (2003):

We cannot take what he says as the absolute truth, maybe because of one or two incidents earlier which proved he’s not always honest. Their story becomes suspect but often the audience doesn’t know that the narrator is unreliable until sometime in the end. 

Typically, the unreliable narrator is implored to conceal a dramatic twist. They fool viewers into thinking the plot is going one way before it shocks with a turn in an unexpected direction. 

There are several reasons why an unreliable narrator is misleading, which brings us to a couple of basic categories. The first is the self-preservationist or trickster

He lies to the authorities or some other threatening force in the film to save his skin or get himself out of trouble with said forces. 

Like this character from The Usual Suspects:

The self-preservationist fools both the audience and characters for his own relief. Then there’s the madman or rebel, like in Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. 

He is an unreliable narrator because of his mental issues, and not because of any fault of his own. 

The third category is the embellisher who lies to conceal a more depressing truth. It’s his way of dealing with personal trauma through sugarcoating a more brutal reality. 

Also, there’s the naif whose perspective is stained because of childhood naivety. Then there’s the wilful liar or the exaggerator, who’s motivated only by self-gain.  

Nonetheless, across the various groupings, certain characteristics are synonymous. One of those would obviously be lying or concealing the truth in some way. 

Other traits of the unreliable narrator often include a dishonest career choice e.g. drug dealing, con artistry, etc.

A contradiction of real-world knowledge also sets apart the unreliable narrator. 

What all these unreliable narrators have in common is their careful and clever use of dialogue. Often, they tell their side of the story via monologues or voice overs. It’s in these moments we get sucked into their world view, until they pull the rug out via a dramatic twist. 

Elements of an unreliable narrator

Lying to other characters and seemingly dishonest jobs

The unreliable narrator, especially that of the self-preservationist mold builds a habit of untruthfulness throughout his journey in the film. He has a habit of pulling one over on other characters and it’s ingrained into his character development. 

Although most filmmakers wait until somewhere in the final chapters for these qualities to surface, many make it clear from the get-go. 

A simple act of dishonesty such as lying to other characters about having a dog when he does not, etc. may offer hints to the audience not to believe everything the narrator says. Other times, establishing patterns of dishonesty can be a clever way of concealing the truth even when it’s outrightly revealed by the narrator. 

When you regularly expect lies from a character, we don’t know it when he occasionally tells the truth. This reverse psychology works to set up a twist ending as well. 

Additionally, they often take on roles that would paint them in a bad light or are typically associated with untruthfulness. Examples include career criminals or more straightforward but crafty jobs such as stockbrokers, care salespersons, telemarketers, lawyers, etc.  

However, it doesn’t derail the believability of the story because first-hand narration offers that inner voice perspective that deceives with a false impression of truth. When well-worked and with great depth of detail, lies are believable even when they come from not-so-trustworthy sources.  Case in point, The Usual Suspects, which we’ll also be talking about later on as an example of the self-preservationist narrator. 

Mental limitations

Other times, the unreliable narrator does not even know he is unreliable. He is telling the truth as far as he is concerned. He has himself, and us, convinced that what he says is in fact what happened. This characteristic especially identifies the madman and naif, unreliable narrators. A famous example of that would be the Joker character from DC movies. 

Plagued by erotomanic delusions, identity crises, and other mental illnesses, the witty and uncontrollably laughing villain offers the yardstick for the madman narrator. He is identifiable by mental shortcomings such as these, taking on the roles of the psychopathic killer, a mental patient, and other appearances along that line. 

The Joker offers different origin stories for his scars to different audiences during his time in cinema. To one person he attributes the scars to an abusive father while in another instance he confesses to inflicting the injuries on his face to support his surgically-disfigured wife. 

While it is unclear which story is true, it is evident that the joker’s words shouldn’t be taken at face value. Filmmakers can establish a pattern of mental instability in a way that slowly builds up to a climax but doesn’t spill all the beans. 

Subtle signs of mental disturbances, like gaps in memory, for example, can lay the groundwork for unreliability when it eventually becomes clear. 

Contradictory real-world knowledge 

The unreliable narrator may also raise eyebrows with his contradictions of real life, in reference to what the audience knows as logic, real or normal. Now the question becomes whether the narrator is doing it by choice, out of ignorance, or through mental compromise. Mental compromise may come in the form of the perspective of a child who has been brought up to believe certain truths, which aren’t necessarily true. 

As a simple example, if a child grows up knowing that a dog is a cow because he is told so, he’ll pass this information on to us. Of course, we know it’s a cow, but the narrator innocently lies because he believes that to be true. 

Sometimes this contradiction is done by choice, especially in films where it is ultimately revealed that everything was just a person’s dream or imagination. These deviations from real-life logic, usually cleverly disguised so as not to ruin the illusion too early, hint to audiences that all is not as it seems. 

Movie examples with an unreliable narrator 

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi is a 2012 adaptation of the famous book by the same name. An Indian man called “Pi,” given the nickname because of his math skills in school, recounts the tragedy of his teenagehood to a Canadian writer. 

The film’s plot revolves around an Indian family relocating abroad in search of greener pastures. They don’t make it there though as a storm causes a shipwreck that sees Pi Patel stranded at sea. 

He can’t find his family and is forced into a lifeboat by one of the crew, right before the ship capsizes. Pi is the “sole” human survivor from the shipwreck. He has to share a boat with a number of zoo animals, including a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a fierce tiger. 

The plot synthesizes into a man vs. nature scenario on a lifeboat at sea.

The Hyena goes at Pi, who scurries to safety to one side of the boat. Both the zebra and the resourceful orangutan aren’t as lucky and are mauled to death by the hyena. The tiger eventually kills the hyena and an uneasy alliance forms between man and tiger. If you stayed till the end of the movie, you’ll find out that all of the animals were figurative. 

They were not actual animals as the narrator led us to believe but rather metaphors for the characters on the ship and his family as well. Pi is an example of the embellisher type of unreliable narrator, as we find out during questioning by a pair of insurance investigators in the end.

His lying isn’t malicious. He alters the truth to hide a more depressing sequence of events that would have totally changed the tone of the movie had they played out more straightforwardly. The animals were metaphors for human characters and were in line with their attributes. The orangutan was a stand-in for Pi’s mother while the hyena represented the ship’s self-centered and ill-behaved cook. 

The animable sailor manifests in the zebra, while the narrator is the tiger. Pi tells a human version of the story after the insurance agents wouldn’t buy his first one. He then asks them to report the one they’d prefer. Both the insurance investigators and the Canadian writer chose to go with the animal version. The unreliable narrator in this case serves to censor what would have been a much more gruesome plot. 

Room (2015)

In 2015’s drama Room, we get an example of the naif narrator in 5-year-old Jack. The film’s plot is about a kidnapper who holds captive a young woman for seven years. He routinely rapes her and they have a son (Jack) together in that time. The film picks up Jack’s life when he is 5 years old. 

All he has known until now is the room in which he’s lived all his life. He is unaware of the real world beyond what he sees on TV, convinced by his mother that what he sees on screen is a fictitious world. The room has no openings to the outside save for a tiny skylight. His mother fakes optimism to keep her son in the illusion of a happy family and thus young Jack is oblivious to the danger they’re in every day. 

We see the world through his young innocence, and his mistruths are in no way intentional. He just tells the audience the world as he understands it, from his pure, yet unreliable, perspective. Unaware of the nature of the life he finds himself in, Jack’s view of the world around him is partial and flawed. He believes that the room they’re held up in is all there is to life when they are, in a nutshell, living in captivity. 

From Jack’s eyes though, through which the film’s early chapters are narrated, there’s absolutely no reason to leave the room. He was content with the life he had.

Jack should be fearful of the circumstances he is in but he isn’t because he doesn’t know any better. An absence of historical and social context leads Jack to believe that he is living a good life. He is happy in his caged existence, but we weren’t fooled for too long as we can comprehend the sinister reality that slips right under Jack’s nose. 

Through dramatic irony drawn from his mother’s interactions and body language, we can deduce the reality of the seemingly blissful living situation. Jack’s naif and naïve narration works as a sympathy magnet and offers a window into the naivety of a young, impressionable mind. 

The Usual Suspects (1995)

This 1995 mystery thriller features an unreliable narrator who deliberately lies to deceive the police and make an escape. The audience doesn’t know that at first, working well to set up the twist that climaxes the film. But when it does happen, it ties in with the narrator’s character, yet we couldn’t have seen it coming even if we tried. 

A hardened criminal isn’t always a reliable source of truth but he manages to make us believe his story because he goes into great detail, lasting the entirety of a feature film. He reels us in with strategic omission of details and cleverly worked flashbacks that support his story, implying just enough to sell his intentions. 

A ship explosion kills all the criminals on board except for two survivors who live to tell their versions of the story to the cops. Painted as a drug deal gone wrong, an FBI agent seeks to get to the bottom of the matter. One of the survivors is a Hungarian mobster who is badly injured and cannot tell his version of events until later on. 

The other is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, a career criminal with “cerebral palsy,” who serves as the film’s narrator. In a nutshell, he paints the picture of a faceless and ruthless Turkish crime lord, who he says to be a major player and leader in the criminal underworld. He pins the blame on him, but never once reveals his identity. 

After the interrogation and Verbal has been released on bail, FBI agent Kujan starts noticing the cracks in his story. Verbal drew inspiration for his testimony from items around the office. Kujan, and the audience as well, realizes he had been lied to the whole time. 

In another simultaneous scene, the Hungarian mobster, through a police sketch, identifies Verbal as Keyser Soze, the mastermind behind the explosion. It turns out we have been deceived the entire time. Verbal was even faking his disability, as we see him gradually lose his limp after posting bail. The unreliable narration, in this case, serves to implant us in the interrogative officer’s shoes and compound the trickery. Hence the emotional betrayal hits us right where it hurts when everything ultimately comes to light. Protection Status