The best films are those that fully immerse you into their world, either through relatable characters and realistic events or extremely stylised visuals that push you into the characters psyche. If you can’t be engrossed you can’t fully enjoy the experience, so it may seem odd when films decide to pull you out of their world by breaking the fourth wall.
The notion of the fourth wall comes from classical, proscenium theatre stage, which consisted of a three-sided set with the audience observing events through the invisible fourth side and is remains common in popular culture with the standard sitcom. It’s certainly nothing new to break the fourth wall, originally popularised in 19th Century theatre, it’s been used to this day in many interesting ways, often exploring and highlighting common conventions.
With cinema presented from a much more subjective viewpoint than theatre, the wall is harder to define. A lot of common film language has developed over the past century that makes the audience aware they’re watching a movie, but still keeps them engrossed; the likes of POV shots, a simple narration or the oddly common cheap trick of something splashing on the lens all subtly reference a fourth wall, but don’t really break it.
Here we present five films that don’t just break the fourth wall, but take a sledgehammer and smash it down. Some have it occur through the whole film, others in just one standout scene, but all use it to brilliant and smart effect. One interesting thing the list shows is that while it may seem typical to use the method for comedy, it can be perfectly usable in a more dramatic context.
Sadly, there’s plenty of favourites that don’t make the cut. The most common reason for this is that in breaking the fourth wall they pull you too far out of the movie; all these examples improve the overall feature.
Honourable Mention: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The prequel to the hit trilogy promised a lot, delving into the history of the series most popular character, as well as bringing some lesser known mutants to the big screen. The highlight of these should have been Deadpool. A mercenary gifted with rapid healing (among other things), Deadpool became a fan favourite in the comics thanks to his constant wisecracking and humorous breaking of the fourth wall.
Played by Ryan Reynolds in Origins, he starts off as katana wielding Wade Wilson, eventually becoming the muted Project XI (with abilities of numerous mutants ‘pooled’ together) very near the end of the film. The only time he attempts to break the fourth wall is in the typical after credits sting, here hinting at the now improbable Deadpool film. It features a hand crawling through the rubble to Wilson’s severed head, which proceeds to shush the audience. Not the most effective, but a damn sight better than the rest of the movie.
This entry doesn’t make the list because one after credit case doesn’t justify the inclusion of a film that is, well, rubbish. The vast potential it wasted, however, means it should be mentioned as a cautionary tale.
This article was first posted on September 18, 2012