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How an Unreliable Narrator Can Help Your Fiction

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Let’s look at Natalie Portman’s best film to study the use of unreliable narrators!

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Natalie Portman is one of the best actresses of her generation. Although not all her movies are great, she’s consistently good in everything she’s starred in that wasn’t directed by George Lucas. That’s right — you won’t find any of the Star Wars prequels here!

Let’s look back at the five best films starring Natalie Portman…

5. Annihilation (2018)

Portman’s latest, released in February, is everything I could’ve hoped for in Alex Garland’s follow-up to his masterful Ex-Machina, my favorite film of 2015. Gorgeous and horrifying, with an incredible cast of strong, captivating women, Annihilation left me exhilarated. Don’t miss it.

4. The Professional (1994)

Marking Portman’s first professional acting job, at age twelve, The Professional introduced a bright young talent to the world. Convinced she was perfect for the role of Mathilda at her audition, director Luc Busson took a chance on Portman — it’s always a chance casting a new young actor in a major lead role — and succeeded admirably. The Professional is not only one of the best action movies of the early 1990s; it also showcases one of the best debut performances of a young actor in the twenty-plus years since the film debuted.

3. Garden State (2004)

Zach Braff’s comedy gem from 2004 definitely has its haters, particularly those who find the movie to be merely OK up until Portman’s neurotic character shows up halfway through, but for those who can fall in love with its charms and quirks, it’s a glorious movie I’ve enjoyed for many years. Braff’s writing and directing are so strong for a first-timer that it’s a shame he’s only made a couple of films since. Portman is a welcome addition to a film that featured one of the best soundtracks of 2004.

2. Jackie (2016)

Some great films stick with you, and some great ones don’t. I loved a lot of films in 2016, but most of them faded from my memory — such was not the case with Jackie. This movie shook me on the day that I saw it, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Portman gave her best performance since Black Swan, and the unique cinematography and inventive editing and hypnotic musical score work together to create a piece of art that is unlike anything I’ve seen.

1. Black Swan (2010)

Did you expect something else? Portman rightfully won the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, by far the best film of her career. It’s an original and haunting once-a-year-if-we’re-lucky masterpiece, a gorgeous psychological horror movie that eight years later I still can’t get out of my mind. Portman was given one of those rare complex roles that every young actress dreams about, one that’s dark and sexual, physically demanding and emotionally devastating, one that Portman commands for every second on the screen. She’s always been a big talent, but director Darren Aronofsky pushed her to her limits in Black Sawn, her best movie to date.

Watching Like a Writer

I love unreliable narrators in movies, and I have written my fair share of them in my fiction. Black Swan is such a fascinating film because as Portman’s character slowly comes unhinged in the chilling second half, what she sees and what she doesn’t see are up to the viewer’s interpretation. This kind of sensation can come across well in your fiction through a well-developed unreliable narrator, but if you’re not careful, this point-of-view element can feel forced, and can ultimately frustrate your reader.

Exercise!

Think of a story that would work best with an unreliable narrator. What kind of genre would the story exist in? And what would be the protagonist’s arc?

Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.

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