11 Movies & TV Shows With Unreliable Narrators That Made You Question Everything
What's more fun in a movie or a show than an unreliable narrator? They disrupt the suspension of disbelief that entertainment's all about, causing you to question yourself for being so easily duped and to re-watch the movie on fastforward in your head, seeing it in a totally new light. We've had growing numbers of unreliable narrators in the past decade (as showcased by 10 of these 11 thought-provoking unreliable movie and TV narrators), and perhaps that's a reflection of the era of media we're living in. Thanks to the Internet, we're all consuming more information at a higher speed and our sources of information have less time to factcheck or investigate their subject. Just like film and TV audiences, we're reliant every day on stories told by unreliable narrators and maybe this is what has inspired our favorite directors in film and TV.
Honestly, some of my favorite movies are those that employ the device. So let's take a trip down memory lane and explore the times that you got sucked in by a lie and had a great time doing it. Obviously the examples below are absolutely filled with spoilers, so if you're averse to important plot details the entire film hinges on, you might want to click out now.
1. Briony Tallis (Atonement)
Briony's misconstrued view of what took place between her sister Cecilia and Cecilia's lover, Robbie, means Robbie ends up in prison for sexual assault. So viewers breathe a sigh of relief to find Cecilia and Robbie end up reunited and married after Robbie spends a few years in prison. The end of the movie breaks fans' hearts in one fell swoop as we discover that their marriage wasn't reality, but fiction. Briony isn't just a brilliant liar, she's a brilliant writer and Cecilia and Robbie's marriage was part of her novel. The real life versions of Cecilia and Robbie lost their lives during the war.
2. Teddy Daniels (Shutter Island)
Why are the staff at the psychiatric hospital so resistant to Daniels' investigation of a missing patient? Why is he getting migraines and seeing visions of his dead wife? If you feel like you're going crazy watching this, you're probably in exactly the right mindset to understand this nuanced character.
3. Hart, Cohle (True Detective)
There are several red flags which suggest you shouldn't believe a word either Hart (Woody Harrelson) or Cohle (Matthew Mcconaughey) says. Hart's a liar who will say anything to save his own skin, while Cohle has substance abuse issues and mental problems, meaning his side of the story might not always be all that objective.
4. Charlie (The Perks Of Being A Wallflower)
Charlie's just a weird kid, right? He's socially awkward, has suppressed memories and occasionally has breakdowns. Also his aunt Helen who passed away when he was a child and used to live with them was a really sweet lady. Or not. When we look beyond Charlie's version of events, everything flips and we understand the reasons for his erratic behaviour.
5. The Narrator (Fight Club)
Have you seen this movie? If not please scroll past now because I'm about to spoil it for you and it's amazing. If you've watched this with friends, you may have played the obvious "would you rather" game for the movie. Would you rather get involved with sexy-but-insane Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) or apathetic-but-not-unattractive anonymous narrator, played by Ed Norton? Cue gasps when you discover Pitt and Norton's characters may not be the two distinct choices they first seem.
6. Francis (The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari)
Spoilerspoilerspoiler. The original "oh, it was all just a projection of someone insane" ending.
7. Nick And Amy (Gone Girl)
This couple are kind of right for each other because they're both as unreliable as each other when it comes to narration. We only discover Nick's been cheating on Amy halfway through the movie. Up until this point, he's been presenting himself as a flawed but loving husband. And Amy, well, she's just the queen of setting up an entirely false fictional version of events, even from off-screen via a well-composed diary.
8. Trevor Reznick (The Machinist)
Weird, unlikely things keep happening to insomniac Trevor Reznick, who hasn't slept for almost a year and who has become emaciated as a result. But is he really as much of a victim as he presents himself as being? Or is he actually behind his own torment?
9. Leonard Shelby (Memento)
Ahh, that old unreliable narrator chestnut: Amnesia. After all, the perfect unreliable narrator is one who actually believes his own lies. Shelby's version of events surrounding a murder turn out to be very tricky indeed.
10. Elliot Alderson (Mr. Robot)
Who's less reliable but more watchable than Elliot Alderson? The major revelation of Season 1 of the show was that Elliot's dead dad, Mr. Robot (played by Christian Slater), wasn't alive, but a figment of Elliot's fevered brain.
11. The Narrators (Rashômon)
The 1950 Japanese film doesn't boast just one, but four, unreliable narrators who all give a different account of how the murdered samurai they found came to die.
Watching TV shows and movies with unreliable narrators forces us all to take up the mantle of critics and train ourselves to become more skeptical and more detail-orientated viewers. So, whether you're into twisty-turny endings or not, if you love entertainment, watch the above to hone your skills of evaluation. Then maybe next time round, you won't be so easily duped.
Images: Paramount Pictures (2); Giphy (4); HBO; 20th Century Fox (2); Paramount Classics; Newmarket; USA Network