The art of storytelling has developed over the years and although there are only so many ways to tell a story, there are no rules as to how we as an audience witness a protagonist’s journey unfold. D.W. Griffith experimented with nonlinear presentation with Intolerance in 1916, while Goddard branched out in the late 1950’s to this technique. Quentin Tarantino modernized it with Reservoir Dogs and other directors have continued to expand the influence of in medias res to this day. In celebration of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Ben and Kyle talk about five of their favorite nonlinear narrative films.
BEN: Though he introduced a modernized version of the nonlinear narrative with his first film, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction cemented its revolution. The year was 1994, just before the dawn of the World Wide Web (in today’s parlance, the Internet). Buzz about films traveled at a snail’s pace, which is funny considering that this film won the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Okay, the joke’s not that funny, yet Tarantino’s sophomore film, a black comedy and a modern neo-noir was responsible for not only reigniting John Travolta’s career, but also for changing the way stories could be told, something that he and writing partner Roger Avary won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for in 1995. It was the first film that Miramax fully financed and distributed, altering the way independent films were distributed. And then there’s the nonlinear way that Tarantino tells his story. The way the sequences are edited together, we’re never jolted out of the moment, which is why this film works so very well. I think the key to his success here is in the characters and the settings. I remember seeing the movie on VHS and in widescreen and being blown away by the change in perspective that it created. At the time, it was one of the more unique movies that I had seen. I think I’ll watch this again soon while enjoying a Royale with cheese.
KYLE: It’s an amazing film that has held up well over the years. As you mention, the script, with respect to perspective is what has allowed it to endure. Yes, there are endlessly quotable lines, but the magic lies in the well-defined characters and the unique presentation. Knowing the fates of certain characters increases the impact over other scenes when they transpire, which I think is one of the benefits of nonlinear storytelling and why so many carbon copy rip offs failed during the crime flick heyday of the 90’s. Most auteurs tried to cash in on Tarantino’s ideas but failed to grasp the importance of the story as well as the characters. There is a rotating door of VHS cult gems that each have memorable characters or scenes of violence, but they pale in comparison to Pulp Fiction because they don’t weave them together into a complete picture. It also continued the tradition of building a stable of performers that Tarantino continues to use to this day.
The Usual Suspects
BEN: Bryan Singer’s sophomore feature film is the electrifying The Usual Suspects which took the world by storm with the famous ending and the line, “Who is Kaiser Söze?” Based on the Oscar-winning screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie who also wrote Public Access for Singer, would use the nonlinear format to tell “Verbal” Kint’s version of events that would lead to a drug deal gone bad for the police involving a severely wounded Hungarian mob boss. Throughout the story, McQuarrie and Singer lay clues as to who the mastermind is, resulting in one of the most celebrated plot twists in cinematic history. The film works because of the sublime cast including Gabriel Byrne, the cool and collected one, Stephen Baldwin, the balls-out nut job, Benicio del Toro, whose broken English plays well into this collection of misfits. Kevin Spacey plays “Verbal” and his Oscar-winning performance is the highlight of the film. Chazz Palminteri does an exceptional job grilling “Verbal” and Pete Postlethwaite is pitch perfect as the ominous courier. This is another one of those films that I saw in college on home video (I didn’t get to the theater as much as I do today for obvious reasons.) Seeing this film on VHS was an eye opening experience. Interesting note: the title came from an issue of ‘Spy’ Magazine which lifted it from a famous line spoken by Claude Rains in “Casablanca”.
KYLE: While I don’t think it has held up as good as some of the others on this list over the years, Singer’s film is a masterclass in narrative construction. Yes, the clues are easy to parse and in plain sight, but the totality is a precise formula that toys with the neo-noir genre to ultimately produce an inverted whodunit. Palminteri, and his scenes with Spacey are the main event, while the lovable cast of rogues moves the story from one point to another. The infamous line-up scene is my favorite sequence, because not only it is continually quoted by film lovers everywhere, it’s evident that the cast are having a good time filming it, which always enhances the mood of a film. While this one is not necessarily nonlinear in the same manner as Fiction, it uses the fractured narrative as a device to explore perspective and truth with narrators who may be unreliable, one of the best attributes for a mystery.
BEN: I think we’re on a role with sophomore directorial efforts. Our third film is another sophomore effort, this time by Christopher Nolan. Starring Guy Pearce and Matrix co-stars Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano, this film is a look at anterograde amnesia, where the protagonist is unable to form new memories while suffering from short-term memory loss. The way Nolan visually interweaves and ultimately intersects the two side effects of the amnesia is breathtaking. In addition to interweaving the various vantage points, he differentiates the two side effects with color and black & white images supporting the deteriorating condition of our protagonist and his world. The narrative is cohesive in its progression, no matter which way you go. While Nolan had a clear direction, Guy Pearce did such an exceptional job at conveying the events he experienced that we suffer right along with him until the last minute. I expect we’ll see a similar style of storytelling in Nolan’s upcoming Dunkirk.
KYLE: Let’s hope! I know a lot of readers are saying, it’s just told in reverse! While this is true, linear stories are about going from A to B. Memento goes from B to A in a puzzlebox presentation that requires multiple viewing to grasp all of its intricacies. I remember seeing it in the cinema and being blown away by the implications of the ending, as well as how disturbing the mood is for the duration. This flirts with psychological horror, dipping a toe into Lynch’s end of the pool, but then quickly reverts into a gritty neo-noir. Speaking off, our first three films have all been neo-noir. Ben, do we have films from a different genre on the list?
BEN: As a matter of fact, we do. This is also where we end our sophomore directorial efforts; however this film’s director is linked with another director we’re celebrating. Soderbergh who has been established in Hollywood since the late 80’s when he broke out with Sex, Lies, and Videotape worked with producer James Cameron to bring a reimagining of the celebrated Solaris to modern audiences. Featuring one of his mainstay actors, George Clooney, the story is centered around Dr. Chris Kelvin, a clinical psychologist who is called on by the DBA to review a disturbing message from a colleague, who along with a crew of astronauts is on a space station orbiting Solaris. Kelvin travels out to the space station to determine why they stopped communicating. Soderbergh’s script remains close to the original novel where he uses flashbacks to create a nonlinear story. Solaris is capable of something greater than the human mind, and it is this existentialism that allows Kelvin to reconnect with his dead wife. Cited as a love story in space, which Stanislaw Lem didn’t agree with, the 2002 version failed to connect with audiences, which is a shame. It is an exceptionally well done film where we get to see Viola Davis in as strong a performance as she gave us in last year’s Fences. Jeremy Davies was amazing as Snow, one of the scientists on the station and although he has a small role, Ulrich Turkur had a lot of fun as Gibarian. McElhone lit up the screen as Kelvin’s doomed wife Rheya. What I liked most about this is its ambiguousness. Is it a love story? Is it a Sci Fi film? Roger Ebert, who loved it, called it “the kind of smart film that has people arguing about it on the way out of the theater . . . . it is essentially a psychological drama.” I still revisit it and long for the day it is released in high definition.
KYLE: I’m a huge fan of both this and the original by Tarkovsky. I actually find myself returning to Soderbergh’s version more often because I think he strips away everything but the raw connections at the heart of the story. Tarkovsky’s dreamlike masterpiece is a lifetime on film, while Soderbergh’s version is a fading memory, and both of them have merit. With respect to the 2002 version, I think the nonlinear presentation is essential in order for the release of the finale to impact the viewer. Themes of love are actually a large part of the science fiction genre and Soderbergh keys into essential, base human emotions in this film. It’s devastating, terrifying, and ultimately unforgettable because the viewer is treated to the gambit of not only the cycle of grief, but how love and loss filter differently through different kinds of minds. Davis (who I also love in this) plays against Clooney so perfectly, I often feel her performance is undervalued. You have science vs. psychological theory and both are plagued by the inevitable baggage we all bring to the table. Davies, in the middle, is the film’s best surprise, bringing home the startling actions of Clooney during the first act. Soderbergh’s Solaris is an organism connected by the fabric of mankind and I hope more viewers give it a chance after reading this.
BEN: Denis Villeneuve, who always wanted to do a science fiction film, gave it to us in spades with 2016’s Arrival. Based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, Eric Heisserer delivers a top notch sci-fi film featuring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma. Part Solaris, part Contact, part The Day The Earth Stood Still, Heisserer uses the nonlinear narrative to sew together a story of grief, love, passion, and empathy as Adams’ Elizabeth Banks races to develop a language database that the military can use to communicate with an alien race whose spaceships have settled above our most populous cities. The structure of the story keeps you guessing what the true nature of the film really is, which is a beautiful thing. Adams gave an Oscar-caliber performance as the emotionally wrecked and passionately driven Elizabeth Banks. Villeneuve’s direction is exemplary here, and is the key reason why Heisserer’s story works as well as it does.
KYLE: Could not agree more. I was shocked Adams was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. This is another…non-traditional choice. The nonlinear narrative is integral to the story, but its reason for inclusion is the film’s most challenging revelation. One of my favorite aspects of this film is how the scientific and military sequences are interspersed with intimate scenes of familial life. This sets the stakes for the viewer, reminding them of the countless souls that hang in the linguistic balance. Communication is the central theme, both in how we interact with the extraterrestrials, but also with each other as a species. Given the divisive last couple of years, Arrival was a breath of fresh air that showed (not preached) love, mutual respect, and most importantly, tolerance. I think it’s important to mention that Bradford Young was the first African American to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Cinematography. It was some of my favorite imagery from last year’s awards season.
BEN: That’s about right, Kyle. Oh! I forgot to mention the connection that Soderbergh has to another of the directors we mentioned – he was one of the producers of Insomnia by Christopher Nolan. We really do live in a small world.
KYLE: Most assuredly. Thanks, once again for the engaging conversation. I look forward to our next topic!
We hope you enjoyed this brief look at our linear list of nonlinear narrative films. As you’re venturing out to your nearest IMAX film to catch Dunkirk this weekend, what are your favorite nonlinear films?