The Unreliable Narrator is a literary tool whereby the story is told from the point of view of a person whose credibility has been seriously compromised. This can be for any number of reasons, including them being insane, exaggerating, joking, naïve, lying or deluded. The viewer is then left to decide how much of the narrator’s story is true or just their opinion.
Although the term wasn’t coined until the 1960s, the technique has been used from a much earlier time, often by characters who are trying to justify why they have done something bad, making it a great device for crime and mystery stories. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is a classic example where the anonymous narrator tries to convince the reader of his sanity, while also describing how he committed the perfect murder. He provides a rational explanation for his irrational actions, allowing the reader to sympathise and empathise with him.
Most films that use unreliable narrators tend to climax in a twist where you realise that you have been taken in by a biased view of events. This is often accompanied by the narrator realising that they have been mistaken, especially if the unreliability has stemmed from a mental illness.
Here are ten films where we were intentionally or unintentionally misled by the storyteller (warning - spoilers!).
10. Gone Girl (2014)
Gone Girl steps up the unreliability of the narrator by having two characters telling conflicting stories of the events of the film. The narration in the film switches between wife Amy and husband Nick. Amy’s narration is compromised as she is creating a story to cover her tracks. Nick’s narration is also unreliable, as he’s hiding the fact that he is having an affair, as if found out, this would further suspicions that he murdered his missing wife. Amy’s diary also appears to tell a third story, and Amy admits to fabricating the contents to further confuse the plot.
Each character presents themselves as the good party. In the first half of the film we are told Nick’s side of the story, and we believe that he didn’t kill Amy, but then we get to find out that Amy is still alive and framing Nick for her murder in retaliation for him cheating on her. The story of Gone Girl appears to be presented with the purpose of the characters both fighting for the viewer to take their side in the conflict, and each of them shows repeatedly that they are not above being deceitful in order to achieve this aim.