If film has taught us anything, it’s that different people perceive things differently. That’s how we get conflict. And we wouldn’t have conflict if we all experienced and interpreted events in exactly the same way.
Whereas history presents itself as being an objective treatment of the human story, story in the narrative sense relies more on the subjective experiences of our narrators, protagonists, and characters. The way they view motivations and events isn’t necessarily the way other characters in those same stories would view them.
There storytelling term to address this subjectivity is called an unreliable narrator—how they frame story events for the audience isn’t necessarily the way they actually happened.
On that note, we’re going to explore eight movies that show how perspective and point of view shape our interpretation of story.
(WARNING! These films aren’t for everyone. But if you’re in the mood to flex those hungry cinephile muscles, then you should absolutely watch every movie on this list. Hint: The best ones are at the end.)
1. Dale and Tucker vs Evil
IMDB | 2010 | R | 1h 29min | Action, Comedy, Horror
Let’s start simple and easy. Dale and Tucker vs Evil is a fun, light-hearted romp that takes a concept like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and turns it on its head to show things from the perspective of the “bad guys.” What we learn, however, is that these chainsaw-wielding hillbillies are anything but “bad.” It’s merely the viewpoint of the victims that frame Dale and Tucker as psychotic murderers. Worth noting is how the movie goes the extra mile to make use love and sympathize with the unlucky protagonists, played by the talented Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine.
IMDB | 2013 | PG-13 | 2h 4min | Action, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Digging in a bit more, we come to Oblivion, a haunting piece of cinema that excels at putting the audience into the subjective in-the-weeds viewpoint of the protagonist. As we get deeper into the story, we begin to realize that the subjective judgments about reality we’ve made are entirely wrong for the simple fact that we were unable to see the bigger picture. Be warned, this Tom Cruise flick may haunt you.
3. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
IMDB | 1990 | PG | 1h 57min | Comedy, Drama
Another film that isn’t for everyone, but certainly holds a certain level of artistic merit, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a surreal movie based on the clever, fascinating stage play of the same name, also written by playwright Tom Stoppard. This absurdist drama is about a pair of co-protagonists who spend the entire story trying to figure out their place in the world and thus, why they have such a strange viewpoint. While the twist ending won’t be given away in this article, suffice to say that the characters played by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth find themselves experiencing the story from their perspective as secondary characters in Shakespeare’s classic play, Hamlet.
4. Vanilla Sky
IMDB | 2001 | R | 2h 16min | Fantasy, Mystery, Romance
With advanced apologies for putting two Tom Cruise films on such a short list, this American remake of Abres Los Ojos (“Open Your Eyes”) directed by Cameron Crowe takes a slightly different tack than the previous films. Rather than focusing on how a different viewpoint can change how we interpret a story, Vanilla Sky takes the route of exploring how far that subjectivity can go. That is, when your reality is based entirely on the internal reductive world of your mind with few (if any) external checks or balances to ground that reality. Although some prefer to spit at the mention of this film, it still takes steps to improve on the original story, making it more surreal, and, in its own way, acts as a romantic gesture to “second chances.” The soundtrack is pretty cool, too.
5. Fight Club
IMDB | 1999 | R | 2h 19m | Drama
I know I’ve mentioned Fight Club several times in my articles, but director David Fincher, novelist Chuck Palahniuk and screenwriter Jim Uhls created something special when they made this movie. More than a cultural icon, this novel and faithful movie adaptation shows us how mental illness can shape our worldview and interpretation of events. Granted, the film itself is not about mental illness, but it’s certainly a determining factor in how the protagonist—and vicariously, the audience—experiences the story. Seriously, check it out.
IMDB | 2000 | R | 1h 53min | Mystery, Thriller
One of my personal all-time favorites, Christopher Nolan’s film places all of its scenes in reverse order, so that each new scene that plays radically revises our perspective of the previous scene. As far as subjective viewpoint is concerned, the film speaks for itself. There’s nothing necessarily surreal or overly metaphorical about Memento, but clever structure and storytelling make all the difference. Again, mental illness plays a role.
7. The Machinist
IMDB | 2004 | R | 1h 41min | Drama, Thriller
Another favorite of mine, this incredible example of filmmaking excellence explores how unconscious bias and guilt can taint a subjective viewpoint until it becomes all-consuming. Unlike Memento, metaphor and surreality are major players here.
IMDB | 1950 | Unrated | 1h 28min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
In 1950, Akira Kurasawa gave the world the ultimate movie about individualized subjective point of view. Rashomon explores three different perspectives of one objective event. Credit the incredible storytelling prowess of Kurasawa and Japanese screenwriting great Shinobu Hashimoto, who use three lines of evidence to prove just how much the subjective experience of a person can result in wildly different viewpoints of the same experience. After seven decades of cinema greatness, Rashomon continues to be much-praised and much-imitated—and for good reason.
So there you have it, a list of eight movies I believe illustrate the power of point of view in storytelling. The characters in these films show how our cumulative backgrounds, beliefs, childhoods and personal experiences fundamentally shape who we are and how we process and interpret events.
Hopefully, you can use some of the lessons learned in this article to inform your own story.
Have a story that features a subjective viewpoint? Comment below.