Follow TV Tropes


Unreliable Narrator / Film

Go To

Back to the main page.

    open/close all folders 

    Films — Animated 
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters: After the opening movie theater parody, the story supposedly begins millions of years ago, in 1492, at 3pm, in Egypt. Then a modern airplane flies by. It turns out this is a story Master Shake is telling Meatwad, and to make it worse, Meatwad is in the story. In fact, pretty much every character in this film is an Unreliable Narrator.
  • A truly bizarre example in The Emperor's New Groove. The story itself is objective, but the narration accompanying it is biased towards Emperor Kuzco, since he is the narrator. At one point, while complaining about how everyone else is the problem, his on-screen self interrupts to remind him the audience saw what happened and knows that isn't true. He's literally arguing with himself over the reliability. Narrator-Kuzco falls silent and is never heard from again.
  • A Goofy Movie: This is what kicks off the plot. We see Max interrupting a speech by his principal and staging an elaborate concert while dressed as pop star Powerline. When Max gets busted and the principal contacts Goofy about the incident, he grossly exaggerates what happened and makes it seem as though Max was a gang member inciting a riot, telling him to do something about his son lest he wind up in jail.
  • Hoodwinked!, like Rashomon below, has each of the protagonists retelling the events of their day. When the characters are each on their own, it's implied that the events as shown on screen are what really happened. When they interact with other characters, the interaction is shown but there are slight differences in actions, tone, and dialogue. In some cases, there's actions that happen in one version but not another. For instance, Red's first encounter with the Wolf goes differently, with some subtle and not-so-subtle differences. Most of the dialogue from their conversation is the same in both versions so is likely what was really said. In both versions, she pepper-sprays him. But in the Wolf's version, she also gives a karate beatdown before hightailing it. We can safely assume the Wolf's telling the truth about this, since there's a picture of Red with a black belt on Granny's wall.
  • The Incredibles. Syndrome's flashback to the moment when he lost faith in Mr. Incredible ("Fly home, Buddy. I work alone.") is significantly different from the actual moment the audience saw, in order to demonstrate Syndrome's unreliable and skewed perspective on events.
  • A few fans believe this trope is the reason for the inconsistencies of The Lion King 1½ compared to the first two films.
  • Played for Laughs in Meet the Robinsons. Bowler Hat Guy (aka Lewis' roommate Goob) tells his Start of Darkness, which he blames on Lewis; however, tying in with the movie's main theme, it's really a matter of BHG refusing to let a relatively minor incident go, even after many years. Part of the flashback includes a scene of young BHG walking down the hall at school, angrily ignoring everyone else:
    Boy #1: Hey Goob, what's up? Cool binder!
    Boy #2: Hey Goob, wanna come over to my house today?
    Bowler Hat Guy's voice-over: They all hated me...
  • In Moana, the titular character's grandmother relates the mythic tale of Te Fiti and Te Ka as two separate entities, but they are revealed to be two aspects of the same god once Te Fiti's heart is returned. Maui, who was actually there, makes the same mistake.
  • A 1969 cartoon by the National Film Board of Canada, titled "The National Film Board of Mars Presents: What On Earth?" is a pseudo-documentary in which the Martian filmmakers mistakenly believe automobiles are the dominant species of life on earth, and proceeds to describe their life span (they die in scrapyards), breeding habits (made in factories), feeding habits (gas stations) and minor parasites that infest them (people).
  • Played for laughs in Rango. The Greek Chorus of mariachi owls says the tale of the title character ends with him dying. He lives. When this is pointed out, they simply say he will eventually die...probably in a household accident.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • American Animals:
    • Spencer and Warren disagree on several points of the story, and the film presents both options. The real Spencer admits that he no longer knows whether he remembers his version of certain events or Warren's.
    • We see Warren go to the Netherlands to meet with a fence at a bar, but in the end, members of the crew say that, for all they know, he made the whole thing up. The film presents an alternate version of that scene where Warren walks right back out of the airport and visits an American bar that looks identical to the Dutch bar. The real Warren (who provides running commentary along with the other real perpetrators) states that you'll just have to take his word for it.
  • American Hustle begins with a title card stating "Most of this actually happened".
  • American Psycho. Much of the film is heavily implied to be nothing more but Patrick's imagination. Patrick even lampshades: "Here is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there's no real me, only an entity, something illusory."
  • In Andhadhun, Akash lies about Simi's fate, at least (his account of the events would not allow him to regain his eyesight). How much of the rest is true is up for interpretation.
  • Atomic Blonde: What we see is what actually happened. However, Lorraine's narration misleads the viewer into misinterpreting events.
  • While it didn't have an unreliable narrator itself, the 2007 Beowulf implies that the original poem is a false account of the events as told by Beowulf himself. His account of why he lost a swimming race is stated to be at the very least exaggerated, when his friend mutters that last time he heard the story, there were fewer sea monsters in it. It doesn't help that the visual portrayal of those events doesn't necessarily match the narration.
  • Big Fish has an unusual take on the unreliable narrator, in that the flashback stories are assumed to be pure fiction for most of the movie and the twist is that Edward Bloom may actually be more reliable than was thought. The appearance of the twins, Giant, and Ringmaster at Edward's funeral clearly leaves Will reeling as he reassesses his father's stories for where exactly they diverged from the truth. The reality is Edward told the truth but slightly exaggerated some things, i.e., the Siamese twins are actually just regular twins from Siam, the giant is a 7'6" man, and so on.
  • In Blade Of Vengeance, the narrator is the female love interest. Her narratives are usually really weird. At the end of the movie, she's seen smoking opium, which explains a lot.
  • Bubba Ho Tep. The stories Elvis and JFK share about themselves and how they ended up in a Texas nursing home are VERY speculative and unreliable.
  • Implied in Bunny and the Bull. Stephen, the main character, is retelling the story of a road trip from his perspective — vital pieces of information are left out or glossed over, not to mention the fact that he sees hallucinations in his house but doesn't realise they are not real until the end of the movie, so by consequence, neither does the audience.
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reveals in the end that the man who has been telling the story is in fact an inmate of an insane asylum, and the entire movie never happened; he just made it up based on the people around him.
  • The first scene of Desperado is a story being told in a bar by Steve Buscemi. The viewer knows that at the time, but what they don't know (until it's revealed moments later) is that the story is fictitious. It's never revealed exactly how much of it was false; the Broad Strokes of the hero massacring a Bad-Guy Bar are later confirmed as accurate, especially judging by what he does to another Bad Guy Bar later on in the movie.
  • The killer in Deadly Detention states that his actions are a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the students for [bullying his daughter until she committed suicide. The Final Girl however, states that she and the others were actually quite friendly with her, and that the killer may have been an Abusive Parent.
  • Detour. It's implied that the main character Al Roberts is coloring events to make himself look sympathetic, and to make Vera seem more like a vicious Femme Fatale. He probably did commit the crimes in the film purposefully, but the story is altered by Never My Fault.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Joel. A great portion of the film is told through Joel's memories of events he experienced with Clementine, but the unreliability of those memories is shown on at least two occasions. When Joel first arrives home the night of the erasure, his neighbor chats with him about Valentine's Day. This is then the first substantial memory about Clementine that gets erased. But while this event took place just a short while (maybe an hour at most) before the erasure, it is shown that Joel is already incorrectly remembering what his neighbor said to him. Other less obvious hints abound (e.g., Joel remembering childhood events while being adult in appearance). Taking the imperfection of human memory alongside whether Joel considered a given memory as enjoyable or upsetting, the audience ought to wonder if what they're viewing is what actually happened, or if Joel's memories are distorted, exaggerated, or embellished because of the passing of time and because of his emotional state at the time of the event.
  • The main issue in Eve's Bayou hinges on the fact that two characters have very different memories of an event and another character reacts to the probably false version with fatal consequences. Cisely admits near the end of the movie that she isn't sure what happened, long after she tells Eve that their father molested her. Eve then tries to kill her father, only finding out much later that he may not have done what he was accused of.
  • The Fall plays some fun games with this trope. It is a film of two levels, stories within stories — a girl in a hospital listens to stories told by a bedridden man, and we see her visualisations of the stories he tells. However, they don't share identical internal dictionaries. One great example is that he talks about an Indian and his squaw, but the girl, who was friends with a Sikh, imagines a bearded subcontinental man in a turban. The Fall also features a classic example of In-Universe Creator Breakdown.
  • Fear Island is told through flashbacks during a police interview with the sole survivor of a teenage slaughter. It's not until the survivor's parents show up that : the police realize the narrator was lying about which person she is and that she was actually the murderer all along .
  • Fight Club has the unnamed narrator who turns out to have a Split Personality disorder and is also Tyler Durden.
  • Flourish stars Jennifer Morrison as Gabrielle Winters, a tutor who is brought in for questioning in the death of her 16-year-old student, Lucy. She tells the entire story to the police officer questioning her, and when she finishes, the police officer asks her how she could have spoken about events she wasn't present for. It's then revealed that Gabrielle is actually in a mental hospital, and the police officer is a psychiatrist. Prior to the story, Gabrielle was in a car accident that caused her brain trauma; as a result, she has frequent memory lapses and unconsciously fills them in with fictional details (sharp viewers will notice that one of the suspects in Gabrielle's story is played by the same actor as the man questioning her). Gabrielle overhears the psychiatrist talking with someone else and comes to the realization that she has made up nearly everything she said. However, the psychiatrist also notes that Gabrielle did correctly guess a lot of the details, leaving it up in the air how much of her story was actually true.
  • Played straight, for laughs, and for drama in Forrest Gump. The naive Forrest incorrectly describes events he witnesses through his life. Notable examples: He believes that Charlie was someone specific that the Army was looking for, as opposed to the code name for the Vietcong, and Apple computers was a fruit company, even though he made a fortune by investing in them on Lieutenant Dan's advice.
  • Matthew McConaughey in Frailty. His family can detect the presence of demons in the people they kill, he's the other brother, and Boothe has a demon inside of him...
  • In the song "I Remember It Well" from Gigi, Maurice Chevalier's character claimed to remember a past meeting with Gigi's grandmother perfectly, only to be contradicted by her in every detail.
  • In the musical film, Grease, Danny and Sandy sing about how they met each other during the summer holidays to their friends, unaware that they are both going to the same school. Sandy sings about how Danny was such a sweet guy and describes their romantic evening, whereas Danny shows off about making out with Sandy and saying that she was "good, if you know what I mean."
  • The plot of He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not.
  • Lifetime movie Her Married Lover is recollected by Katie who is telling a detective about her lover murdering his wife. In the meantime, two other detectives are interrogating the lover and getting a different story from him. It turns out that Katie was obsessed with Richard and everything entailing the relationship was made up on her end. What verifies this is the photo strip she supposedly got when Richard proposed to her, which just shows her holding a picture of Richard rather than being with Richard himself.
  • The plot of Hero (2002) consists of the same story being retold three times with major differences: Nameless' BS story he told so that he could get an audience with the Emperor and have a shot at assassinating him, the Emperor finally calling Nameless on his BS and telling what he thinks really happened, and Nameless finally admitting what REALLY happened just before he tries to kill the Emperor.
  • In High Tension (originally Haute Tension), a French psychological thriller, Marie, a resourceful young woman is trying to save her best friend, Alexia, from an insane serial killer who murdered Alexia's family before kidnapping her. The twist: Marie is the serial killer. The Killer is an alternate personality that Marie created in order to live out a disturbing fantasy: Alexia will fall in love with her savior and stay with Marie FOREVER.
  • The Hole:
    • The psychiatrist knows Liz is being this one when her story has a happy ending, given the fact that all the other kids in The Hole with her are dead. Though she doesn't know that the reason for the inconsistent story is because it's all Liz's fault.
    • This is even more true in the book, since the entire thing is from Liz's perspective, and we only get a hint of the truth at the end in the doctor's letter, which makes a reference to Liz being "the only survivor."
  • Despite the doubtful truthfulness of I Heard You Paint Houses, the book The Irishman is based on, the film, much of which is told in flashback by its aged protagonist, with no one else still alive to contradict him, takes what he says as the truth. However, at one point late in the film he dismisses most of the criminal charges besides those he was eventually convicted of as "other bullshit", implying they were relatively minor. Titles immediately flash on screen noting that those charges included murder, arson and kidnapping.
  • Near the end of the film J. Edgar, it is revealed by Clyde Tolson that a lot of the FBI investigations the audience sees as narrated by Hoover, exaggerate his actual involvement in the arrests.
  • Jennifer's Body: One possible interpretation. The story is told as a flashback by Needy, who is a patient in a prison psych ward. The story in the flashback appears to contain multiple supernatural aspects, notably that Needy's friend Jennifer has magic powers. At the end of the film, Needy appears to use the magic powers that had supposedly been Jennifer's to break out of the prison. Was all of it real? All the delusions of a lunatic? Not precisely real, but the truth as seen Through the Eyes of Madness?
  • In Joker (2019), there are multiple unreliable narrators, but the worst offender is the Joker himself, being both the point of view character and mentally ill enough that it's debatable whether some of the events at the end of the film are real or only happening in the Joker's head. Then there's the Joker's mother, who may or may not be delusional herself but was definitely lobotomized at one point, and the Joker's possible father, Thomas Wayne, who may have just convinced everyone that the Joker's mother was crazy so that no one would know that he had a child with a lower class woman. There's evidence to support both his mother and his father's claims, so it's unclear whether his mother actually ever had a relationship with Thomas Wayne or if she was just delusional enough to believe they were in a relationship.
  • The Kid Stays In The Picture. Robert Evans acknowledges that the documentary is colored by his point of view of the events in the film, with a title card stating:
    "There are three sides to every story: my side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently."
  • David Leigh (David Beard) in The Last Broadcast. Even his narration being a documentary doesn't help.
  • The Last Jedi: Poe disagrees with and eventually leads a mutiny against Admiral Holdo during the Stern Chase arc due to disagreeing with her plan to sacrifice the Resistance's capital ships to conceal transports carrying their personnel and whatever equipment they can fit aboard to a hiding place, after she initially refused to even tell him there was a plan. The arc is told from Poe's perspective, but if you analyze Holdo's actions from her perspective, they all actually make perfect sense: the Resistance's odds aren't good against the First Order fleet in a head-on attack, she doesn't know for certain how the First Order is tracking them so she compartmentalizes sensitive information to the bare minimum number of people needed to carry out the plan for as long as possible, and she especially doesn't trust Poe in particular because Leia relieved him as commander of the fighter wing for getting most of it killed attacking the Fulminatrix against a direct order. ...But this is a much greater degree of subtlety than we typically expect from a Star Wars movie, which is part of the reason for the mixed reaction to the film.
  • Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, is quite likely one of these. In the original novel by Thomas Berger, the historian who transcribes Crabb's narrative expresses the opinion that most of his supposed exploits are pure malarkey. There are hints, however, that the historian may himself be something of an unreliable narrator.
  • Mad Detective. Bun claims that he can visualize people's inner personalities but it's never clear whether it's an example of his madness or a legit supernatural power.
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene: Given how much is portrayed as ambiguous regarding Martha's experiences, what she says about her past may not be wholly reliable.
  • Nearly every joke in The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human relies on the alien narrator misinterpreting human behavior.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is narrated by Greg after the events of the film take place, and he states several times that Rachel isn't going to die and it isn't a story about death. He's lying.
  • Memento. Lenny may be trying to report accurately, but his grasp on the real past is, to put it mildly, highly questionable.
  • Per the narrator of the short film Modesta, the person who told him the story assures that this tale he got from his great-grandparents, who got it from his great-great-grandparents, is absolutely true.
  • Monster a-Go Go has the ultimate unreliable narrator. Whaddaya mean there was no monster, beauzeau?
  • The events of The New Guy seem to strain the limits of Willing Suspension of Disbelief. At various points throughout the movie (eg: immediately after the scene with Danielle trying on swimsuits), however, the audience is reminded that we're seeing the story through the eyes of an arguably-insane convict.
  • North seems to know that other parents use him as a reference as how their kids should act to be a perfect child. It also doesn't help that most of the movie about his exploits is all a dream. And despite stating he is intelligent, everyone aside from the middle class white American family are a bunch of jerks and racial stereotypes.
  • Nymphomaniac can be said to have three main characters: Joe-the-protagonist, Joe-the-narrator, and Seligman-the-audience. While Joe and Joe are the same person, Joe-the-narrator hates Joe-the-protagonist with a passion. Seligman sometimes calls out Joe on her bullshit, but perhaps not often enough. Her story gives an accurate portrayal of her state of mind, but perhaps less so of her life.
  • Jack Harper from Oblivion (2013) has no memory from before he began his current job — his Opening Narration is entirely based on what Sally tells him (and Sally herself is an Unreliable Expositor). Even better, for the whole first act of the movie, Jack, Vicka and Sally are the only characters with lines.
  • Kunal's haunted house experience in Pizza is actually him recounting the story that his writer wife came up with to explain why his pizza bag (which had contained smuggled diamonds hidden as chocolates) was abandoned at the bungalow, with them knowing that his superstitious boss won't investigate further.
  • The premise of Rashomon is that the story is told from four different points of view, all of which disagree, and all of which are unreliable, due to each character having a reputation to protect. The ending at least gives us the truth about what happened to the dagger, but with a very different motive than what the viewer might have assumed.
  • In Rehearsal for Murder, Monica's personality changes dramatically in every flashback. This is because none of these scenes every happened. They are being staged by the actors to throw off the murderer.
  • The main story of Road Trip is told through the eyes of Barry, a campus tour guide who's not playing with a full deck. As such, the story has some highly improbable elements. Lampshaded when he is telling the part involving the girls' locker room.
  • Suki, the protagonist of The Scribbler, is giving a statement to a Good Cop/Bad Cop detective team regarding a series of suspicious suicides in her apartment complex. Because she's a former psychiatric patient recovering from Split Personality syndrome, the bad cop automatically thinks she's lying.
  • The film Secret Window, (based on Stephen King's novella Secret Window, Secret Garden), which is narrated in third person) the narrator is stalked by a psychopath who accuses him of plagiarizing his book, and who attempts to frame him for several heinous crimes. In the climax, it is revealed that the narrator has been driven to madness over his guilt for plagiarizing a classmate in college, and is unconsciously committing the acts for which he thinks he's being framed. The stalker does not exist outside his own mind (although the novella hedges a bit on this point).
  • The Shining: Roger Ebert argued that the audience is never given unambiguous evidence that any of Jack, Wendy, or Danny's perspectives is objective and accurate.
  • In The Shout, there is no way of verifying any details of Crossley's story, and given the self-serving nature of his tale, it is likely that he fudging facts even if the events are broadly true (and even that assumption is debatable).
  • Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th: Played for laughs with the teenager's memories of the night they accidentally drove over a Fisherman and dumped his body. The Alpha Bitch remembers everyone swooning over her, the Jerk Jock remembers how impressed everyone was by his posh intelligence, and the Casanova Wannabe remembers the girls throwing themselves at him.
  • An early example of this occurred in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950), which opens with a flashback narrated by one of the characters who is lying to another character to obtain their help.
  • Snake Eyes features several flashbacks narrated by several characters in an attempt to reconstruct a crime, and every flashback replays through a continuous, first-person point of view shot. One such flashback is completely untrue, as it is narrated by the (unbeknownst) criminal.
  • Starship Troopers is an infamous example that hoodwinked a large percentage of the audience when it first came out. The narration is done in the style of heavy-handed military propaganda which extols the virtues of war and frequently injects commercial-like scenes that end with the repeated phrase "Would you like to know more?" Despite the heavy casualties and losses the humans face against the alien bugs they're fighting against, the movie and its characters never lose the Determinator spirit characteristic of Hollywood war movies. Any suggestions that the bugs may possess actual sapience and intelligence or that they may be reacting to what the humans did first are dismissed as nonsense, and one scene emphasizes that point by showing a Fox News Channel style pundit laughing and interrupting a scientist. The movie ends by emphasizing their sole victory in the movie: capturing a brain bug for study. This is spun as proof that they will win despite all evidence to the contrary. Because of all this, many accused the movie of promoting fascism. That's the joke. Director Paul Verhoeven hated the novel this movie was named after, so he exaggerated the military worship to audacious levels.
  • The movie Sucker Punch embodies this trope, since almost all of the movie takes place just as the protagonist is having a lobotomy. Made all the more weird because we're not quite sure who the narrator is.
  • In Swimming Pool the novelist protagonist spends most of the movie dealing with her publisher's daughter's bad habits including murder but, at the end, we learn that the publisher's daughter is a completely different girl, leaving us wondering who the girl was, and if she existed at all.
  • In the Korean horror/suspense film A Tale of Two Sisters, this trope only becomes apparent at the end. It starts out fairly normal, with two sisters returning home to their father and stepmother. It starts to get confusing, with the unexplained appearance of some wraith-like girl under the sink, various objects and people disappearing and reappearing without explanation, and all sorts of contradictory information. Eventually the stepmother murders one of the girls, only it's revealed immediately after that it never happened. It turns out one of the girls was pretending to be both herself, her stepmother, and her sister. The sister who was supposedly murdered had died a long time ago in an accident, and the stepmother was simply the nurse taking care of the two when said accident happened, which the girl blames for her sister's death. Are you confused yet?
  • Underground has a brief joke in which expository text claims that Yugoslavian President Tito became so distraught by the disappearance of one of the main characters that he fell sick and died... 20 years later.
  • The Usual Suspects. Agent Kujan spends the course of the movie listening to Verbal Kint tell his story, then rejects portions of it as lies. The problem, of course, is that the whole story is a lie.
  • In Wang De Sheng Yan, much of the film is narrated by the aging emperor Gaozu, and revolves around the events that led to his rise to power. Later we get to see just how incomplete his version of events was, and how much help he had from those who are now serving under him. It is also implied that ancient historians and scribes are unreliable narrators, as they are forced to pass down the version of history that their masters want them to.
  • Where the Truth Lies: Karen is anonymously sent manuscripts for chapters of Lanny's memoir, his voiceover reading of such making up the narration for the film's flashbacks to the 1950s. However, the reliability of these manuscripts is later brought into question.
  • In Who Am I (2014), the interrogators (and by extension the audience) learn of the hero's backstory through narrated flashbacks. However, The Reveal exposes key points of his story to be false.
  • Wonder Woman (2017): Considering Hippolyta is doing everything she can to hide Diana's identity as the God-Killer and the eventual reveal that Ares barely had to do anything to send humanity into their violent ways, her telling of the fall of the Olympian gods to Diana becomes questionable in terms of accuracy and honesty.