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The Unreliable Narrator’s Effect on Audience’s Perception of Reality and Truth in Neo-Noir

We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are.

The closing lines of the complex neo-noir film Memento present the thesis of this essay, with our protagonist questioning his own reliability as a narrator. As Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) narrates his own story, we are presented with the elements of first person narration and the audience’s perception of reality. The presentation of first person narration or internal monologue within neo-noir has a drastic effect on this understanding of truth, altering sequences and twisting the audience’s perception of the story to an extent where all is manipulated. It is narration that drives these stories and thus affects the audience’s perception of truth and reality. Combining the elements of traditional film noir and postmodernism, the “problem” of narration in neo-noir adds complexity to a genre which already explores the intricacy of human nature and the nihilism of American popular culture. Narration plays a critical part in the two films that will be examined. With Memento, due to the character’s own memory fallacies, the narration is not only self-aware but provides a map for the audience as to what is occurring within the film. In American Psycho, the narration allows the protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) to reveal his own narcissism. Thus, his perception of events within the film shape the entire story, his method being his madness. Within these scenarios, the audience is at the will of the narrator. However, this is noir, a genre that is a nucleus of anti-heroes and human monsters. Both of these films make the same comment on American nihilism and retain the same themes of classic noir: pessimism, corruption, desire, and, of course, darkness.

unreliable narrator - memento

Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman: Two Narrators, Two Problems

Memento and American Psycho explore the noir-esque element of first person narration and its unreliability and effect on audience perception of truth. The methods of narration that Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman employ are similar, yet different. While both films are considered examples of neo-noir, they do not utilize narration the way that classic noir did. Generally, classic noir featured a narrator who told his story with narration and flashback, as the narrator himself tried to make sense of the events to make a coherent story. However, both Leonard and Bateman’s narration is more in the style of stream-of-consciousness, narrating what is occurring to them at that moment, as opposed to what has happened in the past. (Hollinger 1996, 243). Classic noir “[…] most often contain weak, powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the vents of their lives to their own design” (Hollinger 1996, 243-44).

unreliable narrator - american psycho

Both narrators continue the tradition in that they are unreliable, but the difference between Leonard and Patrick is in the why. Leonard is a man who cannot trust himself because of his inability to do so. His ability to lie to himself and change the progression of the story is increased by his mental condition. Patrick Bateman, however, is just insane. He has the full mental capacity to tell the truth to himself, but refuses to, because he is completely blinded by the yuppie culture he thrives in. His insanity is not only a product of his own perversions, but also of the culture. At times, the consequence is that Bateman at times can be honest and objective about certain scenes, where Leonard is living a lie to the extent where it completely affects the entire film. Despite his temporal limitations, Leonard remains just as guilty as Bateman, as the self-delusion he creates is an act of deliberation rather than an accident of his condition. This aspect is where the two characters relate to one another in an unusual way; both are able to lie to themselves and to continue to live their lives, where they have no qualms with their actions.

 

However, both men make the choices to lie to themselves, and thus remain unreliable narrators. Leonard asks himself, “Do I lie to keep myself happy?” (Nolan 224) This is a true statement for both Leonard and Bateman, but the latter does it deliberately in a sociopathic way. Leonard’s motivations are for solace and personal fulfillment. Memento is an example of a “neo-noirish revenge film” (Schmidt 13), where its main narrative purpose is for the protagonist to seek revenge. American Psycho is what one could consider a “criminal noir film”, where its protagonist is less of an antihero and more deliberately a villain. The film’s main goal seems to seek the opposite of redemption, and acts as a seduction of the viewer to the dark side. With narration, this allows Bateman to almost personally entice and seduce the viewer. The styles and uses of narration intensify the film, making each moment seem more personal and intimate. Whereas American Psycho deals with the identity of a generation, Memento deals with the identity of one man. This affects the viewer’s empathy for the character, in both positive and negative ways, and sends the narrative structure, and viewer’s ability to perceive reality, careening off the edge of conventionality to a point of no return.

Editor’s Note: This is a snippet of an academic essay that has been reposted here with the permission of the author.

To read the full essay, check out The Movie Scene.

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