As an audience, we usually occupy the view-point of the camera, which would within the space of the film's physical world be the "fourth wall" that we never actually see. Breaking the fourth wall is one of those rarely employed cinematic techniques that instead of attempting to immerse viewers in the world that is being created, actively draws them out of it. Some see this as a cheat when it comes to storytelling, but when done well, it can give us quite a bit of insight into the workings of an otherwise complex character.
Here are five great movies that are examples of breaking the fourth wall:
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is about a real-life convicted Wall Street broker, Jordan Belfort. The film is not only hilarious, but absolutely addictive, too. The film follows a group of men having a great time doing despicable things, without any retribution.
When Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) breaks the fourth wall, he explains how things work. He even sneers at the audience for not being in the loop of things. This serves purposes like underlining the irony of Belfort’s life and how concepts of the right and wrong are human constructs that can be easily manipulated.
American Psycho (2000)
Mary Harron's film, American Psycho, is an allegory to the corporate alienation that people go through in a competitive world. It is also the character study of a man trapped within his own obsessions and paranoia.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a Wall Street executive, has the perfect life so to speak, but he is neither happy nor content. Beneath the facade, is an egoistic, obsessive-compulsive individual with homicidal tendencies.
When Bateman breaks the fourth wall, he explains his life, his likes, his dislikes and his actions to us. This is not done just for a dramatic effect, but because he wants us to understand him.
Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club, the tale of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and his army of ordinary men wrecking anarchy in a capitalistic world, is perhaps one of the most significant films of the 1990s.
David Fincher brings in a sense on raw exhilarating energy, as we connect to the story of a man bored to death by his nondescript existence and how he responds to his predicament. He focuses on how consumerism has taken over our lives and how we are all just nameless, faceless entities in the larger scheme of things.
Tyler breaking the fourth wall is not a mere gimmick. He looks straight into the camera and bemoans our sorry lives, he wants us to feel our misery.
Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall, directed by Woody Allen, lays down the neurotic relationship between Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) as we are faced with the nature of modern romance, love and relationships.
The film has various moments where the fourth wall is broken. However, the one moment that stands out is when Alvy bursts out in anger at a queue in the cinema after overhearing a man disparaging the work of Federico Fellini and philosopher Marshall McLuhan. After arguing with Annie, Alvy suddenly steps out of the queue and looks straight into the camera, expressing his frustrations. Out of the blue, he pulls McLuhan into the frame and decides to end the feud with the stranger then and there.
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho gave new meaning to the slasher-horror genre. Psycho follows Marion (Janet Leigh), a woman who steals money from her boss, her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and her sister’s frantic search which leads them to the quiet and empty Bates Motel, run by the mysterious Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
In the film, Hitchcock explores the pervasive irony of love, romance and affection, as we see the lives of a group of flawed individuals slowly derailing. He also subverts the conventional notion of an ideal life and happiness.
At the end of the movie, Bates breaks the fourth wall by looking straight into camera. He has a wicked smile growing on his face which somewhat tells us that he got away with murder.