Whom do you trust? Do you trust your friends? Your family? Classmates? Professors? Politicians? How about the films you watch? Do you think you can trust them?
The films Rashomon, The Usual Suspects, and Atonement each deal with this question of trust between the audience and the film in their own, unique way. However, all three coincide in the way they force the realization that the audience is all too willing to trust what it sees. Why is it that the camera is able to so easily convince us that we are witnessing the truth?
The great Akira Kurosawa's renowned 1950 film Rashomon provides the perfect jumping off point to delve into this question, as the film's impact is truly remarkable. For example, it coined the term "the rashomon effect," which is a psychological concept used to describe the phenomenon when one occurrence is perceived in distinct ways by different witnesses. The film follows three men: a woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner, as they discuss the case of a murdered samurai; the two men assert that they have never heard "such a strange story." The woodcutter claims to have found the body of the murdered man, and the priest claims to have seen the samurai earlier walking with his wife in the woods. Thus, the two were brought into court to testify. There, they witness the testimonies of the particulars surrounding the murder, first from a "notorious bandit," Tajomaru, then from the wife of the samurai, and then from the samurai himself, speaking through a medium. Each character introduces his or her story, and then the camera cuts to what initially seems like a flashback, but actually proves to just be a visual aid to the story they tell, accompanied by a voiceover narration of their testimony. Eventually, the voiceover stops, and the audience becomes fully immersed in the world of their story. As each testimony begins and ends, you find yourself believing whichever version of the story you are watching and hearing, yet they cannot all be true. After the third testimony, the woodcutter reveals that his initial account of the discovery of the body was a lie; he claims that he actually saw the murder take place, as well, but pretended he did not in order to stay out of the situation. An objective truth is never revealed; the audience remains lost at the end, unsure of which story is true, or if any of the stories are true. Overall, this film provides the perfect introduction to understanding the power of the narrator, as the film suggests that stories depend wholly on the person telling them. Thus, it is the narrator who has the ultimate power to determine the truth of the film for the audience.
The 1995 film The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer, plays brilliantly with this fact—that the narrator has an extraordinary power over the audience. This film has a non-linear chronology, jumping around in time as the events of a bloody raid on a boat come to light. This raid was carried out by five criminals, led by a former police officer named Dean Keaton, under the orders of a man named Keyser Söze, a criminal mastermind who is unknown to all. The facts of the crime, and everything leading up to it, are all revealed to us in the present by one of these five criminals, Verbal Kint, one of the two survivors of the horrific battle. The story is told to us through flashbacks and voiceover as we once again become fully immersed in the narrative. It is difficult to describe in words exactly how brilliant the structure of this story is; the audience is constantly thrown back and forth in time, trying to piece together the different parts of the story being told. After Kint concludes his story, his interrogator shocks him by proposing that Keaton himself was the mysterious Keyser Söze. Kint is incredulous; he feels betrayed and pleads that Keaton was his friend. As the story concludes, Kint leaves, and we feel sure it will not be long before he is killed by Söze for the part he played in the story and the information he knows. Yet, it is moments after he leaves that his interrogator, sitting in his office thinking over the story he just heard, suddenly drops his mug of coffee. The entire story comes flying across the screen in a matter of seconds through bits and pieces of the facts given by Kint, along with random words written on posters in the interrogation room that popped up in Kint’s story, and finally, a sketch done of Keyser Söze from the last remaining survivor of the boat raid that clearly resembles…Kint himself. Kint, our narrator, has been lying to us the entire time. Kint is Keyser Söze. Singer, in the last couple minutes of the film, completely uproots everything you have come to take for granted throughout the film. Just like Kurosawa, he asserts the insurmountable power of the narrator. The entire story, as in almost everything we have seen and heard, has been delivered through Kint. We somehow forget that Kint is a person with an agenda as we listen to his story. We believe him to be telling us the objective truth of what happened without a second thought. In every way, it seems that his story is true. But each and every narrator has a subjective experience; there is no objective truth, and our forgetting of this crucial fact is catastrophic in the case of this film.
The final film I analyzed was the 2007 film, Atonement, directed by Joe Wright. This film was based on the 2001 novel of the same name written by Ian McEwan. This novel is one of the ultimate contemporary novels concerning the use of an unreliable narrator, and I was interested to see how it was dealt with in the film versus in the novel. The story first follows Briony Tallis, an avid writer, at age 13, as she misinterprets an encounter she witnesses between her sister, Cecilia, and the son of a servant, Robbie Turner. This misinterpretation spirals out of control as she further and further misconstrues who Robbie is and concludes he must be a sexually crazed criminal, where in reality, he and Cecilia are in love. When Briony’s cousin Lola is raped, Briony tells the police Robbie committed the crime due to her firm conviction as to who Robbie is. As she is the only witness, the police arrest Robbie, and he eventually enlists in the war in order to get out of prison. The story then follows Robbie’s life in the war and finally his reunion with Cecilia. It is the very end of the story, however, that is truly fascinating. In the novel, the postscript is entitled “London 1999” and is written in the first person from Briony’s perspective, which is an abrupt change from the third person omniscient narrator to whom we had grown accustomed. In this postscript, Briony reveals that she is a successful writer and is publishing this story as her final novel, for she is dying. Thus, this third person omniscient narrator was, in fact, Briony, telling her own story. But is it the true story? Briony reveals that, though the characters of Cecilia and Robbie reunite in her story, the two actually both died right before the end of the war. Thus, the happy ending we received was not true. It was fiction. Wright chose to frame this revelation in the film as a TV interview with Briony as she promotes this book. As we are watching 18-year-old Briony leave Cecilia and Robbie, to whom she attempted to apologize for her wrongdoings, and suddenly the screen goes black. We hear in a voiceover an older woman’s voice saying: “I’m sorry. Could we stop for a moment?” Numerous images of cameras are then shown, showing this woman on them, as we realize that it was this woman who had been telling the story we had been watching, though it seemed like we were watching an objective truth, or a factual telling of past events. Thus, it is revealed that we were understanding this story through the perspective of an unreliable narrator who is telling a fictionalized version of the events of her past.
All three of these films intelligently display the immense power of the narrator to truly determine what is real and what is not in a film. What is more, in my opinion, films are able to even further convince an audience due to the connection between the camera and the story. We see before our eyes the story that our narrator is telling us. Thus, that old saying “you have to see it to believe it” comes into full play; we are seeing a story play out right in front of us in a fully believable way. Yet each of these three films argues that, particularly in the world of film, seeing is not always believing. Just because we are seeing something doesn’t mean it is the objective truth. Stories you hear are always coming from somebody else’s subjective perspective. Thus, it seems that there is no objective truth in the world.
However, these films seem to differ in their ultimate understanding of this fact of the impossibility of objective truth. The Usual Suspects ends by instilling absolute shock in the viewer; you are left speechless, wondering how you could have possibly been so deceived throughout the film. You are thus left with a very skeptical outlook on life: absolutely nobody can be trusted, for truly anybody can be deceiving you. Rashomon seems like it might have a similarly bleak ending, but the final scene takes a surprising optimistic turn. The priest says, close to the conclusion of the film, “maybe goodness is just make-believe.” The conflicting stories have him upset and baffled, much like us as viewers, the witnesses are lying and there is no telling what the truth actually is. He states: “If men don’t trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.” Yet, upon the discovery of a crying, abandoned infant, the woodcutter decides to take the child and raise him or her with his family. After seeing this incredible act of humanity and kindness, his bleak outlook on life shifts, and the priest says to the woodcutter: “Thanks to you, I think I can keep my faith in man.” Thus, Kurosawa’s film suggests that mankind can still be good despite the inescapable culture of lies it has created. Then, in Atonement, at the very conclusion, Briony Tallis explains why she lied in her novel: “But what sense of hope or satisfaction could the reader derive from an ending like that [in which Robbie and Cecilia both die and are never reunited]? So in the book, I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness. I gave them their happiness.” Thus, lies are not all inherently evil, or done in order to confuse or hurt others. Briony was an unreliable narrator for the sole purpose of achieving this final act of kindness that became impossible to accomplish in reality.
So, perhaps there is no such thing as objective truth. Perhaps we are being constantly deceived by unknown subjective experiences pretending to be utterly real. But this may not mean that “this earth might as well be hell,” as the priest in Rashomon says. It seems that there is still goodness to be found in mankind despite the untrustworthy nature of storytelling; furthermore, there is even a sort of kindness or beauty in deception itself.