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By Kole Lyndon Lee · September 28, 2022
A good 4th wall break can not only add a lot of fun to a story but it can also allow your audience to really get inside your characters’ heads. But how do you pull them off?
Let’s take a look at 10 movies that have used 4th wall breaks to various effects — from cheeky nods to internal jokes to intense addresses that rip movie-goers out of their seats and into the diegesis.
This movie was not breaking the 4th wall from start to finish like other movies on this list, but the moment it did… It was truly impactful. Mister Rogers tells Lloyd to “think about the people who have loved him into being,” then the entire restaurant is silent for a minute while Fred looks into the camera.
It’s a brilliant moment that works not only as a way to create an emotional impact for the character but also as a way to create a kind of emotional umbilical cord from the characters to us. The stare proposes that we (the audience) think about the ones who loved us into being, sucking us into the story even more. It is perfectly executed using the tool in a fresh way that we do not see all that often.
The Austin Powers franchise is iconic for its comedic 4th wall breaks. The movie uses the breaks purely to insert more comedy into the scenes–and does so beautifully. There are so many creative moments, from the infamous “Just enjoy yourself” scene to the scene where Powers misreads subtitles.
Many times, a comedic 4th wall break does not work. It’s too cliché and throws us out of a scene. Austin Powers avoids this every time, bringing in just enough comedy to either lighten up an intense moment (as intense as it gets for an Austin Powers movie) or heighten what is already a comedic moment, pulling us into the scene more.
Ferris Bueller might just be the most famous 4th wall-breaking character in cinema. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of the best coming-of-age movies we have, part of which is due to the excellent use of the storytelling tool. Almost every time Bueller breaks the 4th wall, he’s referring to his friend, one of the other main characters, Cameron.
He honestly gives us insight into Cameron’s life, helping us understand more about his character, which is absolutely integral in helping us understand Bueller’s drive, which makes us connect with him even more. We a more willing to break the rules and go on Ferris Bueller’s hero’s journey with him, knowing that his intention is to bring joy into his best friend’s life.
The Big Short is one of the best recent movies to break the 4th wall. Rather than using the storytelling tool to create an emotional impact, like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, or using it purely for comedy, like Austin Powers, this movie uses it to educate the audience.
The film deals with some fairly complicated topics (boring banking stuff) but topics that are key for the audience to grasp in order to understand the plot. So, rather than using exposition in the dialogue that would most likely come across as too on-the-nose, they opted for deliberate clichés. Doing that indicates to the audience that what we are learning is essential for the plot but not important enough to weave into the actual story via the character’s journeys.
Stanley Kubrick’s classic, A Clockwork Orange, deals with sensitive and controversial ideas. Our protagonist is far from the traditionally likable character that we willingly want to connect with. Alex is a rough fellow with a mind that needs exploring in order for us to understand his intentions.
And that’s precisely why Kubrick used 4th wall breaks. We do not have to like him in order to go on this journey — we just need to attempt to understand him. Understanding him gives us a better chance to explore the questions about free will and good and evil that Kubrick proposes.
Annie Hall is one of the best rom-coms out there with two complex characters who have layers of depth and emotion to explore. With every instance of a 4th wall break, we get a better understanding of Alvy and his thought process, even when the break does not directly relate to the plot.
For instance, the infamous Marshall McLuhan scene where Alvy steps out of a line in a theater and argues with another moviegoer about Marshall McLuhan’s work, then proceeds to bring McLuhan into the scene addressing the audience. This scene gives us a hilarious example of how Alvy thinks, how pessimistic he can be toward other people, and how stubborn he is with seemingly inconsequential things. And of course, all those things play a significant role in the deterioration of his relationship for the rest of the film.
You already know Psycho has to be on this list. The iconic stare Bates gives us at the end is chilling and it’s all it needs to be for us to love it. But it also puts the nail in the coffin regarding the psychological exploration we endured throughout the entire film of Bate’s insanity. It is like he is (she is) finally letting us into his little secret, knowing exactly what he is doing.
There are two iconic moments in Goodfellas where Scorsese broke the 4th wall.
Henry is narrating the entire movie to us from start to finish, and the last moment in the courtroom is almost an indicator that the story he is telling us is the same story the jury got. Like we were sitting in on his betrayal of all his gangster friends and family. And the moment, Tommy shoots is the nail in the coffin and, famously, an homage to The Great Train Robbery, one of the most impactful films of all time.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the book of the same name written by Jordan Belfort himself. The real Jordan Belfort has such a unique personality and perspective on the events that happened, that Scorsese felt the need to try to capture that same energy in the movie. When movie-Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) breaks the 4th wall, it not only educates us on some of the technical aspects of stocks, but it also lets us into the mind of the character more, giving us more of a reason to follow him on his corrupt path.
Last but not least, the ultimate 4th-wall-breaking movie — Fight Club. You already know the impact of this movie and the role the fourth wall breaks play, but it has to be on this list or this list would never be complete. This movie delves so deeply into the torn mind of a man that it almost feels necessary to have the wall-breaking moments to orient us back onto the path of The Narrator. We need the deeper perspective so that we can stay committed to the plot, trusting the events to unfold.
Okay, Fleabag isn’t a movie, so it shouldn’t technically be on this list, but it’s one of the best examples of clever use of the 4th wall break. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the showrunner and star of the show, allows the audience to tap into her character’s inner monologue as she encounters different people and situations in her life. From sitting around a table having an awkward dinner with her family to having a drunken conversation with her love interest The Priest, the convention of the 4th wall break gets turned on its head constantly in this TV show.
After revisiting all of the movies and thinking about how they broke the 4th wall, I notice that one purpose the storytelling tool seems to always serve is allowing us to understand the character more.
A rule of thumb we all know, in terms of screenwriting, is to never write emotion or thoughts onto the page and try to use visual storytelling to get the job done. But one of the most effective ways to dive deeper into a character’s psychology is by doing just that. Writing the character’s thoughts directly onto the page with a fourth wall break. It is a dangerous game to play, but when it is done well, like in all the movies on this list, it has a substantial impact on the audience and heightens the emotional essence of the movie.
So don’t be afraid of adding a 4th wall break into your script. Just read these scripts, watch the movies, and take copious notes!