Perspective isn’t something normally discussed in relation to movies. Those conversations are usually dominated by talk of plot, production design, pacing, or performance quality.
Simply put, perspective is who tells the story. (Not to be confused with point of view, which is how that person tells the story.)
In most cases, the perspective in a movie is implied — the filmmaker takes the place of an omniscient third-person narrator in the story, and the audience then takes the filmmaker’s place in the theater.
Every so often though, a movie comes along to remind us that perspective can, in fact, be manipulated in the filmmaking process.
The most successful of these movies are the ones that keep the different perspective a secret until the climax of the film. They are the ones that, upon seeing the credits roll, make us want to watch all over again to see what subtle clues and red herrings we missed the first time along.
When seeing these films, we, as audience members, usually think we’re watching something else — a thriller, a drama, a comedy — but in reality, a mystery is unraveling on the screen before us.
Take one of the most successful of these movies: Fight Club. (And yes, I realize I’m breaking the number one rule of Fight Club by including it as an example. My apologies.)
Fight Club lays the groundwork for a compelling crime drama as audiences follow the narrator (Ed Norton) through his insomniatic life until he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). What happens after that, over the course of the rest of the film, is a complete 180. Eventually, viewers realize that Tyler Durden doesn’t exist — that they’ve been seeing the entire movie from the narrator’s perspective, and that he’s not completely in touch with reality.
Fight Club is one of those movies you want to start over again minutes after it ends. And with each viewing, the secret becomes more and more obvious — you see the things that went unnoticed the first time around, put things together that, at first glance, didn’t seem to fit.
Other movies of similar nature — the likes of Inception, Shutter Island, Psycho, The Others, The Sixth Sense, The Prestige, and Black Swan — do the same, in different ways. All manipulate perspective for a better storytelling experience.
That brings us to the most recent example: Tully.
The trailers for Tully give no indication of what viewers are in for when they get to the theater. They show Marlo, an overwhelmed mother of three, finally accepting help from a night-nanny named Tully. They promote an honest movie about motherhood and the trials and tribulations of having children — and in many ways, that exactly what Tully is about.
But it’s also more than that.
Huge spoilers ahead, so be sure to see Tully before you read on.
At some point in watching Tully, audience members realize that something else is going on. Maybe it’s during the hot-tube scene, the diner waitress sex scene, or much later during the car crash scene. Either way, eventually you’ll begin to understand that Diablo Cody has skillfully manipulated the perspective of her screenplay to great effect.
Tully is Marlo. Marlo is Tully. Or, to be precise, Tully is a manifestation of Marlo’s younger self — one that exists entirely in her mind. Once viewers realize this, or when the film reaches its climax, the story takes on new meaning. It’s about postpartum depression and the sometimes harsh realities of motherhood and mental health. It’s about growing up; it’s about female friendship. It’s about the life you sometimes leave behind when you take on the role of wife and mother. And perhaps most of all, it’s about accepting that the life you’ve chosen to lead is enough.
That’s why these manipulative perspective movies work so well. By using perspective as part of the story, these screenwriters are able to craft more complex, deep stories that resonate further than others.
They surprise you. They make you think. They stir controversy and conversation. They force you to question. They prod you to look at yourself. They affect you.
And ultimately, they stay with you longer after you leave the theater — as all the best movies do.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.
Image credit – Bron Studios