Time, or at least our perception of it, travels in a linear fashion. We perceive events to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beauty of the arts — cinema in particular — is that stories don't have to be told sequentially.
Mixing up the timeline of a film is referred to as 'nonlinear narrative,' a process where chronological order is thrown out of the metaphorical window and anything goes. This may be in done the form of flashbacks (The Usual Suspects), beginning at the end of the story (Fight Club), or infusing dream sequences (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
In some ways, it could be said that nonlinear narratives exploded into the mainstream in the mid '90s, and have become commonplace for some of the industry's top directors. Many associate the fragmented, flashback style of narrative with Quentin Tarantino, or more recently with Christopher Nolan, but where did it all begin, and how did it evolve?
Setting The Foundation For Unconventional Timelines
Throughout the history of cinema, directors and script writers have always attempted to bend, twist, and altogether distort the way in which stories are told for our viewing pleasure.
In fact, long before the likes of Pulp Fiction (1994) or Memento (2000), the use of non-linear narrative stretched all the way back to the silent era; D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, released in 1916, melded and cut between four different storylines set across different centuries.
Fast forward to post-World War II, and the use of the non-standard structure was revolutionized by Jean-Luc Godard, the French director. His 1968 film Le Weekend, which was told through a disjointed narrative, sent ripples of change through cinema. His view of storytelling was summarized concisely with his famous quote:
“I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end. But not necessarily in that order.”
Moving Into Modern Times
Across Europe, numerous directors in the '70s and '80s experimented with the style. Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky released Nostalghia (1983). Federico Fellini was an auteur of narrative bending films. In the US, Robert Altman experimented with the style, from Nashville (1975) to Gosford Park (2001), while Woody Allen's flicks Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), and Stardust Memories (1980) were all nonlinear.
But the '90s and 2000s were when the structure really blossomed. Quentin Tarantino, with a realm of hits such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), thrust the idea of nonlinear into the mainstream — in some ways creating a renaissance — repacking it for modern audiences.
A Favorite Of Hollywood Heavyweights
A number of today's heavyweight Hollywood directors have demonstrated a fondness for the non-chronological. The distinctive style is a watermark of most of Christopher Nolan's movies: Memento (2000) was a truly genius use of an out-of-sync narrative, while flashbacks and dream sequences were used in the Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige (2006), and Inception (2010).
Alejandro González Iñárritu, who became the first person to win back-to-back Oscars for Best Director since 1950, is skilled at mixing the order of events to add impact to his narrative. His 'death trilogy' of Amores perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006), weaves plot points and characters like threads in a cross stitch, only to then slowly unravel the connecting events bit by bit.
But what are some good examples of nonlinear working well? Having considered its origin and use in modern cinema, let's take a look at some masterpieces of unconventional storytelling. You'll never view time the same again:
1. Memento (2000)
Director: Christopher Nolan
It's impossible to discuss unconventional narratives without listing Nolan's breakthrough psychological thriller.
Nolan exquisitely uses a mixture of two timelines, out of chronological order, to tell the tragic story of Leonard (Guy Pearce), who can only recollect the last five minutes of his life.
By intertwining past, present, and future, the film mimics Leonard's condition, creating sympathy for the protagonist as well as keeping viewers disorientated.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Although the visionary director didn't create nonlinear narratives, he did pioneer the way to make it alluring for Hollywood blockbusters. While Reservoir Dogs (released two years prior) opened the door, Pulp Fiction arguably changed the face of modern cinema.
3. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Director: Bryan Singer
Arguably one of the most enthralling crime films ever made, Singer's vision threw up one of the best plot twists of all time when revealing the identity of Keyser Söze.
Told through flashbacks of Roger "Verbal" Kint (Spacey), the use of nonlinear allowed the opportunity to keep audiences guessing until the very end who the mysterious crime lord was.
4. 21 Grams (2003)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
The four-time Oscar-winning director has frequently used nonlinear narratives in his work, but 21 Grams stands apart for its impact. Chronologically, the film tells the story of a tragic accident and the consuming grief its characters face.
Yet under Iñárritu's direction, the intricate interweaving and connectivity adds another dark and mystifying level of depth to the movie.
5. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Director: Michel Gondry
With a script carefully crafted by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry's exploration into the reminiscent world of dreamland is a impeccable example of using a nonlinear narrative to capture the sporadic nature of the mind.