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10 Best Movies With Unreliable Narrators

June 1, 2017
9 min read

The process of story narration has evolved its way through in cinema over the years and filmmakers have often made great use of narrative structures, steering away from traditional methods and crafting ingenious techniques to build suspension and tension to the story. One of the most interesting techniques is the use of unreliable narration that is often put to use by writers/directors to deceive the audience into believing the protagonist’s theories and finally lead them into the unexpected twist of the story. A technique which can be fairly credited to the great Japanese auteur, Akira Kurosawa, it has taken various forms and shape over the years and has been evolving in cinema across the world today. This article takes a look at the list of top movies with unreliable narrators. You can watch several of these movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.

 10. The Machinist (2004)

Much like the plot of ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘Fight Club’, ‘The Machinist’ follows a troubled insomniac who starts to experience strange, bizarre things at work and home. Trevor Reznik accidentally injures a co-worker and is soon draw into the frightening web of madness and paranoia as he loses control over his mind and body. The mysterious aura of his existence and the life that encompasses him are revealed in a nerve-racking finale where we are shown that the episodes of his life, as revealed to us throughout the movie, are illusions formed as a by product of his guilt concerning an incident that took place a year ago when he accidentally ran over and killed a boy but decided to drive away.

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9. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Even the harshest of M. Night Shyamalan detractors might not deny the classic that ‘The Sixth Sense’ is. Sadly though, the director could hardly craft anything later in his career that would come anywhere near breathing distance of this truly brilliant psychological thriller that left us in complete shock and disbelief when we first saw it. The film depicts the story of a psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, who treats a child who could communicate with dead people. Right from scene number one, Shyamalan puts us in the perspective of the protagonist and convinces the realities of his existence. In a film of twists and turns, we are shown in the climax that Crowe is actually a dead man, who apparently realized this only through the kid and not a single person could communicate with him or see him except for the boy.

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8. Gone Girl (2014)

There is almost nothing reliable about ‘Gone Girl’ in that it features a frustratingly deceptive narrative structure that unfolds the story of a man who becomes the major suspect in the disappearance of his wife. Though extremely over-the-top and contrived at most places, ‘Gone Girl’ works for the most part thanks to the director and stellar acting performances from its lead. Fincher leads us to believe the story of his narrators in two halves as he tricks us with the characters’ flashback revelations via diary entries that are distorted truths of the couple’s married life. The two different perspectives become increasingly convoluted as we struggle to believe in what either of them feeds us with. In a gut-wrenching finale, the characters’ layers are peeled off and we finally learn the truth that we were denied throughout the movie and by the end you realise you are no longer the same person.

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7. Lost Highway (1997)

David Lynch‘s work has often been a frighteningly repetitious cycle of cinematic nightmares that gets injected into your psyche with a profound sense of mystification that is both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. ‘Lost Highway’ is quintessential Lynchian piece that, like most of his other works, initially pretends to follow a narrative structure but turns into a seductive blend of reality and nightmarish surrealism. The film depicts the story of a man who is convicted of murdering his wife after which he morphs into a mechanic and begins a new life altogether. The second half drifts away from the initial plot-line (if at all that existed!) as we let ourselves be manipulated by Lynch and are pulled deeper and deeper into a nightmare that we find way too intriguing and seductive to wake up from.

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6. Shutter Island (2010)

Martin Scorsese‘s evolution over the years as a filmmaker is just the kind of stuff legends are made of. Most of his peers like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Brian De Palma have turned into mere shadows of their former selves but Scorsese has long remained a student of cinema and his work in the 21st century is a testament to the fact that he is still a contemporary director at his very best. His 2010 psychological thriller, ‘Shutter Island’, further proves his grip over building tension in character driven dramas. The film tells the story of Ted, a detective who is sent to a secluded mental asylum in a mysteriously frightening island in order to uncover the mystery behind the disappearance of a woman. Scorsese’s exceptional control over the audience’s psyche is brilliantly put into display here as we see things from Ted’s perspective and his theories gradually start making complete sense and seems perfectly logical only to be fooled by an ending that reveals the disturbing truth of Ted’s life which shows that he himself has been a patient of the asylum after killing his wife and losing control of his mind.

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5. Life of Pi (2012)

Ang Lee is perhaps one of the most versatile filmmakers working in cinema today. His body of work explores human lives with repressed emotions under the clutches of societal brutalities and often examines the ever intriguing conflicts between traditional and modern values. ‘Life of Pie’ chronicles the epic survival saga of Pi, a 16 year old who has lost his parents in a shipwreck and has to fight for his life with a Tiger and a bunch of other animals. The story is told by an older Pi to a novelist who thinks Pi’s life could be a great subject for his new book. There is a great amount of ambiguity built towards the end in the story narrated by Pi as we are left wondering whether such an incident actually took place or has he just swapped characters between the two stories that he told the insurance agents.

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4. The Usual Suspects (1995)

Bryan Singer’s cult classic suspense thriller features one of the most famous narrations in cinema history. Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint recounts the events, of which he himself was a part of, leading up to a deadly gun battle on a boat to a Customs Agent. The story Verbal tells gets increasingly complex as he speaks about a legendary Turkish drug lord, Keyzer Soze, who is widely regarded as the most feared personality in the drug business. Just as Verbal concludes his story and walks off towards a car waiting for him, we see Agent Kujan, the Customs Agent to whom Verbal narrated his story, in a moment of shocking epiphany as he realises Verbal’s entire convoluted story-line was made up from details on a crowded bulletin board in the office in a startling game of manipulation. Kint walks off, dropping his limb, smoking a cigarette and driving off, implying that he just might be the devil who pulled the greatest trick of convincing the world that he never existed.

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3. Fight Club (1999)

The rockstar of modern day Hollywood thrillers, David Fincher, crafted one of the most inventive and inspiring pieces of art that spawned numerous cinephiles and spoke for a generation stamped under the superficiality of modern society. ‘Fight Club’ follows an unnamed narrator who has increasingly grown tired of his monotonous day job and is looking to free himself from the clutches of societal expectations and luxuries. Incidentally, he meets a charismatic soap salesman, Tyler Durden, with whom he forms a recreational fight club. The narrator’s insomnia and anxiety problems have taken a toll on him as we are eventually revealed that Durden is narrator’s alter ego that he developed in order to break free from the monotony of his life. Arguably, one of the finest uses of unreliable narration and cinematic deception.

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 2. Memento (2000)

There was something so raw, dark and intriguing about the Christopher Nolan in his early indie days that has sadly withered away with his foray into the mainstream arena of Hollywood cinema. The seductive boldness with which he crafted this ingenious indie masterpiece remains untouched in his career and serves as a testament to his envy-evoking skills as a director. Known for its famous use of the reverse chronology sequence and a narrator suffering from short-term memory loss, ‘Memento’ is an achievement in story-telling. The film follows the protagonist’s quest for vengeance as he tries to unveil the identity of his wife’s murderer. Nolan uses a black and white sequence for the scenes movie forward and a colour sequence for the scenes going in reverse chronology as the ending, which is technically the beginning of the film, reveals the true identity of the protagonist and the reason behind his Sherlock play. ‘Memento’ is a nerve-racking examination of the human mind and what drives the human psyche to keep going.

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1. Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s seminal masterpiece, arguably, pioneered the use of unreliable, contradictory narrative that has now almost become a staple of modern day crime thrillers in mainstream cinema. ‘Rashomon’ was groundbreaking for its time for the structural and technical innovations it pioneered. It features several characters providing one-sided, contradictory perspectives about the same incidents as we are deceived into believing every story, bringing in a certain amount of genuine ambiguity and mystery to the film. Kurosawa explores the ambiguity of truth with a complex plot-device that lures its viewers into believing the factual authenticity of the events and later exposing the flaws in every human perspective.

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