Tom Jolliffe on playing with character perspective to take the audience exactly where you want them…
In the history of cinema, many writers and directors have sought to transfix an audience and take them to very deliberate places. Sometimes these tales fire straight like an arrow, leading us on a linear and clear path, with an honest narrator/protagonist. We trust what is in front of us, and our protagonist is clear and defined, even when a story might opt for a twist ending. However, occasionally the audience is taken on a ride. This can be done in a number of ways by playing with perspective. Perhaps the most overt way to do this is with the unreliable protagonist/narrator (if said narrator happens to be third person on rare occasions).
You can spend an entire film for example focused entirely on a character, through their point of view or as told through objective observer. So what if they’re duplicitous? They could even be psychologically unreliable. Look at Christian Bale’s Bateman in American Psycho. The black comedy that sticks a knife into 80’s corporate consumerism and yuppie culture, also takes a look at a character with a fractured view of reality. Even though we get first person narration from Bateman (albeit brief), there’s a sense of omniscience occasionally, because there becomes this growing disconnect with reality, as if Bateman has lost himself. The overriding thing, is that he’s unreliable. When his reality becomes frayed, our understanding of what is real and what isn’t thus becomes altered. It then becomes a point as an observer to make an objective reading of the film, based on our understanding. This is why there are a number of ways American Psycho can, and has been read. We’re lead astray in a tale where the ratios of reality and fantasy are undefined. How many people does Bateman kill? If any…
One of the best examples in modern cinema of leading us astray with an unreliable narrator is in Fight Club. Much like American Psycho we are focused on someone psychologically unstable. Fight Club is very much first person with a consistent narration throughout, focused on Ed Norton’s insomniac white collar office worker who becomes tied to Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) an anarchistic anti-establishment terrorist in waiting. The Narrator (Norton) is very distinctly taking us through this dark and twisted tale. He’s leading us furtively around the truth for the majority of the picture but not intentionally. That final act realisation comes at a point, in unison with the audience, of self discovery where he realises that he is in fact Durden. An alter ego, a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia who exists within him.
In The Usual Suspects, we’re walked through the beginning, middle and end of a criminal team assembly and heist gone destructively wrong by Verbal Kint. As he retells the whole sordid tale to the police, he’s continually caught out as withholding or being dishonest, but as we discover further, Kint is only relaying the information he wants when he wants. He’s toying with the cops, stringing them along as he waits to walk free. That final realisation that Detective Kujan has is also our final realisation, that a criminal with an almost mythical reputation has been the one weaving this tale all along. Kujan is undone by his obsessive need to pin everything on Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). That desire in itself shapes where Kint takes his story, which thus shapes the direction we’re taken too. Kint, our narrator has full control over the information relayed and he plays us like a fiddle.
In Burning (Chang-Dong Lee’s brilliant and evasive thriller), the film is very much from the perspective of Jong-Su, only breaking from him on a couple of deliberate occasions. Jong-Su is relatively stable and he’s honest, but as the film arcs into a missing persons/murder mystery, he’s the one on the hunt to find Hae-Mi (who he has only recently reconnected with after). Interestingly, his feelings for her begin somewhat indifferently, dispassionate. He steps back without much fight when assuming that she’s started a relationship with the enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun). He likewise can’t help but feel somewhat intrigued by Ben and his lifestyle. It’s only when Hae-Mi disappears that he becomes driven to any kind of desire, and that is to find out what happened to her. The film itself toys with us in a number of ways, not limited to perpetual nuggets of information delivered to us (sometimes incidentally, or things said directly to our protagonist) that may or may not hold relevance. The main point becomes increasingly clear though, whether you believe the mercurial Ben is a killer or not, our views on him are largely defined by what Jong-Su suspects. The more the search continues, the more we realise too, that Jong-Su’s mind is clouded by his perception of Ben, and a somewhat obsessive nature. He’s convinced to the point of murder, Ben is guilty. Everything circumstantial he finds, thus becomes inherently concrete. He might be right, but his relative stability is destroyed by the end of the film.
Staying with Korean cinema, we have The Handmaiden from Park Chan Wook. This sumptuous thriller tells a tail of deception initially from the perspective of Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri), a pickpocket working in unison with a con-man to manipulate a wealthy heiress into marrying the con man. What begins as a tale of deception turns into a love story with an unexpected double cross that seemingly blinds our first narrator. Then we switch to the other point of view, that of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) who retells things from her perspective (As well as delving back into her past for some relevance). There’s a final retelling focused on the conman (but with a more objective distance) where everything and the outcome becomes clear. What we have, through a mix of the source material (based on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith novel) and Park’s adaption is a very deliberate manipulation of audience. First through the individual perspectives, but also through the perspective of Park’s script, direction and the editing. Even through the first two perspectives we’re delivered carefully rationed information. Key things that happen between moments don’t get finally revealed until part two or three of the three acts. It’s very much in the Rashomon formula, with the difference being a switch to something a little more omniscient in the final act. Still, Park, with previous throughout his career, is a master manipulator, who manages to bewitch us, even when he toys with us. This is the mark of perfectly playing your audience through the careful use of character perspective.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.