For Leap Fear month, I want to take the time to show some love for non-linear narratives: movies that jump around in time, rather than sticking to the steady forward march of future becoming present becoming past. We already experience time in this way every day and we understand that experience as much as we possibly can. Movies that choose to play with time create innovative ways of revealing story elements to the audience (and puts a lot more trust in the audience to follow along) and is particularly powerful for the horror and mystery genres.
In honour of the form, this love letter to fragmented horror will be told in seven disjointed pieces.
Time is An Illusion
Everyone on the planet may be following the same cosmic clock, even if we don’t have a universal way to read that clock or really understand how to measure it. If you want to get all philosophical about it, I recommend checking out Tyler Liston’s dive into the “time is a flat circle” scene from True Detective. Without getting philosophical about it, time is experienced in subjective ways that can’t be counted by minutes and seconds, and film can dig into the horror and isolation of that truth.
Time can be stretched and expanded, it can take an ouroboric form and loop back onto itself as in Happy Death Day (2017) or Timecrimes (2007); we can see timelines that appear to be parallel but aren’t (Saw II) and others that appear to exist in isolation, but are actually running concurrently with other events (Saw III) and Saw IV); we can see the same moment retold, untold, and refolded into a new story by a new narrator (Basic); or we can see a single moment in a new light simply by jumping backwards into one person’s past or their memories (Us, It: Chapter 2). As soon as we stop treating time like LEGO bricks that snap together one-by-one and start treating time like something akin to Silly Putty, it becomes a changeable and unbounded framing device.
“Memory can change the shape of a room […]it can change the colour of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record. And they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” –Memento, 2000 (Christopher Nolan)
In Media Res
Who says that we have to begin at the beginning? Any storyteller worth their salt asks themselves “why am I starting here?” when they sit down to select their opening line, the first scene that sets the audience’s context for the rest of the experience. Don’t Breathe (2016) begins with a long sequence of an unconscious Rocky (Jane Levy) being dragged by the hair down an isolated, beat-up asphalt road.
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” -Jean-Luc Godard
We don’t meet her, we don’t even have a name for her, until the next scene, when we meet her alive and looking for a new house to break into. But the tone is already set, even if we fail to make the connection that Rocky and the woman in the first scene are the same person (as I failed to do the first time I watched): something dangerous is lurking in Rocky‘s future, and we’re moving forward in time toward it.
A movie should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the beginning might not align with the appearance of the title card, nor the end with the scroll of the end credits.
Fragmented Style Has Become Signature
There are some directors who love to play in a fragmented sandbox. Christopher Nolan is often one of the first directors to come to mind first, thanks to Memento, despite non-linear storytelling making an appearance in the gross majority of his works, from Following (1998) to The Prestige (2006) to Dunkirk (2017). David Lynch is another household name when it comes to fragmented fictions, having brought us thrillers like Mulholland Drive (2001) and Lost Highway (1997). And then of course there’s Quentin Tarantino, who granted us non-linear trips from the very beginning of his career with Reservoir Dogs (1992). As an aside, here’s a really great analysis of why Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) only works when its structure is out of chronological order.
All of these directors tend to hang in adjacent genres like crime, mystery, or thriller. There isn’t a strictly horror director that comes to mind as immediately as the above three, but horror directors like James Wan, Mike Flanagan, Oz Perkins, and others have all played with time structures at some point, but not often enough for it to become their Thing. You’ll see fragmented story-telling make an appearance more often when horror overlaps with other genres like mystery or thriller, because elements of those other genres demand controlled reveals and misdirections. The last thing a horror film with mystery elements wants to do is risk a chronological format if it means showing its entire hand too early.
Everything is Unreliable
The absolute best part of using a non-linear narrative structure is that it has the potential to throw any given moment of the story into doubt. It prevents us from putting all of the pieces together until that climactic moment when everything clicks neatly together (and when done well, we feel good about ourselves when we solve the puzzle before that moment).
Fragmentation also makes the characters that we follow unreliable. We meet unreliable narrators all the time in horror, usually linearly (mis)leading us to protect some twist (American Psycho, Haute Tension), but sometimes we get the treat of seeing them pushed through a non-linear filter (Jennifer’s Body, A Tale of Two Sisters). The disjointed storytelling of A Tale of Two Sisters enhances our confusion of how Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) views her family and the events preceding her psychosis. Opening Jennifer’s Body by establishing Needy (Amanda Seyfried) as a violent in-patient at a psychiatric hospital who is relaying her story entirely as a flashback, we can never know if her story is truly what happened.
“Time destroys everything.” –Irréversible (Gaspar Noé)
Played to the extreme, we can have Rashomon (1950)-style situations, where we can gather bits and pieces of a story as it’s retold through a number of unreliable persons. This was done recently Knives Out (2019), where we had most of a murder story established, but could only understand it as we pieced together interrogations from a lot of self-serving and untrustworthy characters and looped the story over itself again with each new telling.
It’s intriguing enough when we know when we can’t trust a character’s account because of their nature, but it can be a blown-mind moment when we realize that we can’t trust what we’re seeing because its being told outside of chronological order. Think about a movie like Irréversible (2002). It’s hard to wrap your brain around the violence early in the film until later scenes give us context and justification for the revenge. That said, I’m not sure I agree with Gaspar Noé. I would prefer to think that time creates.
Want to spread the love for non-linearity? Can you think of a film that could be vastly improved by being told in fragments? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!