Unreliable narrators are great, because we empathize with them even as we know they are going to do us dirty at some point. We, in some odd sense, are unreliable narrators of our own lives, and so to want to watch logical extremes of this makes sense.
It probably explains the allure of Paula Hawkins’ bestselling book The Girl On The Train, adapted first with Emily Blunt and recently with Parineeti Chopra, streaming on Netflix. While the former was a box office success, it received middling reviews. The Parineeti Chopra-starrer got the short end of the stick in terms of critical reception. The film however has been trending on Netflix and as of writing this, is Number 1 in India. So there’s something to the genre. Here’s a list of films that offer different takes on the “unreliable narrator” genre.
Not many movies have the distinct pleasure of becoming adjectives in their own right; Rashomon-esque, Rashomon-like, that’s such a Rashomon book or movie—the Rashomon Effect was named after this film. Akira Kurosawa’s psychological thriller is entirely invested in giving different versions of the same story, complicating the conception of “truth” — the murdered samurai speaking through a Shinto psychic, the bandit in the forest, the monk, the rape of the wife and the dishonest retelling of the events in which everyone shows his or her ideal self by lying.
2) Gone Girl, on Amazon Prime
When the book The Girl On The Train released, many likened it to, and almost heightened it to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It’s not a far fetched connection— the suburban life, and the narrator, the one of The Girl On The Train which we don’t trust at the outset, and the one of Gone Girl, we grow to distrust. The film, written by Flynn and directed by David Fincher has also the mood of an unreliable narrator; a he-said-she-journals format that quickly unravels, as we begin to doubt both what he is saying and she is journaling.
On the anniversary of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), Amy goes missing, and the story unspools around possible suspects, as the history of the marriage is strategically interjected with flashbacks to move around perception. A film we thought was from the perspective of Nick, is actually a slippery distant observer, who doesn’t know whom to believe and which loose thread to further investigate.
3) Race, on Netflix
This is Abbas-Mustan at their best—movies with hairpin bend-like twists and swerves, giving you a narrator in the form of Anil Kapoor, a fruit obsessed investigating officer— the kind of man who goes where the strong winds blow, but insists on doing a body count. This is a story of sibling-love that morphs into something else, love that morphs into something else, and sex appeal which goes by the dime. Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna are the siblings and Bipasha Basu and Katrina Kaif are the lovers— who loves whom, and who wants to kill whom is all a muddled mess. The narrator himself is unreliable not because he doesn’t want to tell you what is going on, but he himself is so confused as to iron out the plot, which at its best resembles a tangled earphone. It is streaming on Netflix.
4) Ghajini, on MX Player
A story of memory loss makes for a great unreliable narrator, and if he loses his memory every 15 seconds, it is all the more exciting because of the time-bound nature of the operations. While Nolan’s Memento, a sort of motherboard for this film, kept you with the character, Ghajini, starring Suriya, and adapted into Hindi with Aamir Khan, both opposite Asin, has a more birds-eye viewpoint, where you as a viewer are aware of everything going on. This infuses the masala of flashbacks, and the music of Harris Jayaraj (in Tamil) and AR Rahman (in Hindi), both of which crackles on the radio for years after their release. The Tamil film can be streaming on MX Player and JioCinemas while the Hindi version can be found on YouTube.
5) The Sense Of An Ending
This would be the most human, perhaps least dramatic version of the unstable narrator, because when it’s all done and dusted, we realize that in telling our stories, by converting memory into memorials, we lose sight of facts. Like one of the characters in the movie (and the Booker Prize winning book by Julian Barnes on which it is based) quotes, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
This film is about the inadequacies of documenting our own lives, what gets missed, and the tragedy of that. Directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox, Photograph), this film follows Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) and something unresolved with his early girlfriend Veronica (Freya Mavor), who decided to leave him for his friend.