The unreliable narrator is an effective way to reveal plot twists in films and stories, but it doesn’t come without controversy. The Usual Suspects uses an unreliable narrator, and one of its common criticisms is that the movie doesn’t rely on the narrator being unreliable as much as he’s a flat out liar. Other movies and books use an unreliable narrator and people don’t even realize it. A movie about a mentally disabled man telling strangers how he met a President, caused Watergate, taught Elvis how to dance, and accidentally made millions when he bought stock in Apple thinking it was a fruit company sounds like the ultimate unreliable narrator tale — it’s also the plot of Forrest Gump. Is Gump an unreliable narrator? No one cares! Sometimes the messages get mixed and the style outweighs the substance. Neither of those really apply to Joker in its use of the unreliable narrator.
Joker makes it abundantly clear that Arthur Fleck is an unreliable character; his relationship with neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) is shown to be a ruse; he imagined the entire episode. Early in the film, we are shown that Fleck’s imagination flutters when he becomes infatuated with something — he imagines himself in a television studio audience and suddenly called onto the stage after an impromptu laughing fit. In Fleck’s mind, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) approves of everything he does and the crowd adores him. This is an early hint of what’s happening in the story, and a visual clue that you really need to pay attention to what’s going on to see what’s real and what’s not.