There’s no such thing as truth! Everyone has their own truth.
So claims Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding – somewhat dubiously – over the trailer for I, Tonya. The film adapts the true story of Harding’s 1994 scandal, along with the many rumours that still circulate around the incident. I, Tonya has a playful relationship with the truth; after blasting at her husband with a shotgun, Harding turns to the camera and informs us “I never did this!” Director Craig Gillespie shakes up the conventional biopic structure with the question of whose story we believe – if anyone’s.
The concept of an unreliable narrator has been fascinating audiences more or less since things started being narrated. It works quite naturally in literature, where the fallible first-person account is a long-accepted and widespread narrative device. Film, however, is a medium in which narration is a less common storytelling technique. Making a movie work with a narrator of the unreliable variety, then, has inspired a multitude of different approaches. Here are a few.
1. The Competing Truths: Rashomon (1950)
Akira Kurosawa’s classic is such a landmark case of unreliable narration that the term “Rashomon effect” is used to describe examples in real life. Four different accounts of a murder are shown in flashback, with each witness contradicting the others. Characters imply throughout that none of them are telling the truth and, depending on your own point of view, the film may end without an answer. Each version of the story is compelling, but undermined by doubt: the bandit might lie to look impressive; the samurai’s wife to appear honourable, and so on.
The four clashing narrators, unreliable or otherwise, make Rashomon both a thrilling tale and an unsettling thesis on the malleability of “truth”. No wonder, then, that its structure has hung around in the artistic imagination as a framework for exploring fact and fiction. Most recently, a Rashomon-inspired turn filled in a vital moment in Luke Skywalker’s history in The Last Jedi, and I, Tonya’s own talking-head mockumentary format looks set to imitate the classic.
2. The Guilty Conscience: Detour (1945)
Sometimes, unreliable narrators lie unconsciously. The unconscious is precisely the domain of Edgar G. Ulmer’s cheap-and-nasty noir classic, Detour. You needn’t even be conscious of any narrative unreliability to enjoy Detour. It works perfectly well as a typical noir tale of an innocent schmuck in way over his head. But as critics have pointed out, Detour’s apparently luckless narrator Al has good cause to be spinning us half-truths. Are the unfortunate coincidences and accidents he relates really the product of mere misfortune? Or are they inventions of an unquiet mind, designed to conceal a series of heinous acts from the audience and Al himself?
The notion of a guilty man unconsciously editing out his crimes is a bit of ‘40s-friendly Freudianism that gels perfectly with Detour’s nightmare-logic setup. The inescapable hand of fate – or guilt – pursues Al through fog-shrouded cities, shadowy highways and the same few claustrophobic rooms again and again. The murky visuals were necessitated by Detour’s tiny budget, but used to prime unsettling effect by Ulmer, who picked up a thing or two about the off-kilter world of expressionism while working with the great F.W. Murnau.
3. The Madman: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
Dr Caligari is the pure, uncut, German Expressionist version of Detour’s nightmare psychology. It is also an early cinematic example of the unreliable narrator as twist ending. At the film’s climax [century-old spoilers ahead], we learn that the preceding hypnotic horrors have only existed in the mind of a psychiatric patient, who imagines those around him as characters in his fantasy. The “it was all a nightmare” ending might cheapen a more involved narrative, but Dr Caligari runs on atmosphere and this revelation knocks its unsettling reality even further askew.
The idea of madness creating or distorting a narrative is a popular one, from Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ to Nabokov’s Pale Fire (at least in one interpretation; theses have been written on that book). Its popularity has seen it become somewhat overdone, especially since the ‘90s gave us American Psycho, Fight Club, their film adaptations, and myriad imitators thereof. Christopher Nolan wisely sidesteps the trope in Memento: though it incorporates elements of the Madman, that film’s unreliable narrator has more in common with a particular Robert Zemeckis crowd-pleaser.
4. The Innocent: Forrest Gump (1994)
Like Memento’s Leonard, Forrest Gump’s abilities as a narrator are impeded by a chronic case of dramatic irony. We often know what “slow” Forrest doesn’t, so his unreliable narration is often comedic (he thinks Apple is a fruit company) or tragic (he doesn’t understand Jenny’s traumatic childhood). The literary precedent here is curriculum favourite The Catcher in the Rye, in which teenage narrator Holden Caulfield doesn’t wholly understand the world or himself, but tells us enough that we can fill in the blanks.
While Gump plays this trick about a subtly as its historical cameos, it’s an interesting example of a transparent unreliable narrator. Films like Rashomon, Detour, and Memento either obscure what is true or do away with the concept of truth entirely. Here, Forrest is open about his imperceptiveness and we can easily see through his version of events. This kind of honest dishonesty carries over to my final variety of unreliable narrator – though, in keeping with the theme, all is not as it seems.
5. The Storyteller: The Fall (2006)
Simply put: this type of narrator is making it all up. They’re not crazy or dreaming, and they (usually) don’t believe their own story. This one is sometimes deployed at the end of a narrative, pulling the rug out from under the audience; and by using it as an example, I hereby spoil The Usual Suspects. However, it is perhaps more appealing when we know a story is being told all along. Incidentally, this is another thing those Nabokov scholars write theses about.
Tarsem Singh’s sumptuous fairy tale The Fall presents us with a standard Storyteller setup. Hospitalised Roy makes up a tale for young Alexandria, and we see the story in her imagination. This form of narration also lets us see the real world influencing the story. There are elements of Gumpish innocence, as when Roy describes an American “Indian” and Alexandria pictures a Sikh from India. The story-world becomes more cruel when Roy is in pain, and kinder when Alexandria acts as his conscience. Roy is inconsistent, as most of us are, but he shows that a narrator need not be reliable to tell a good story.