The identity of a character in a film is something that filmmakers love to play with. Characters can assume a new identity of either a pre-existing character, craft a new one or they can perhaps craft an identity for themselves that is completely different without so much as changing their name. This trope works perfectly for the crime/thriller genre.
Unreliable narrators have been in fiction for years and have transitioned into film and other media. Famous novels like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby both feature an unreliable narrator and have both received acclaim in their respective fields.
The Stranger Left No Card (1952)
This 22-minute film from the early ’50s is a thriller told in monologue. We watch John Smith (David Baddiel), an eccentric who goes into a normal town and befriends everyone with his loveable strangeness. However, the visuals don’t match up with the more sinister monologue. Turns out that this is not just an eccentric… but also a man with a grudge against the local business owner. In the end, we don’t find out much about John Smith’s identity only that he has committed the perfect crime against a man who has wronged him. This film builds us up for a film about a strange man and so the personality we project him is very different from the final reveal.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
This classic thriller/comedy is the perfect example of a mistaken identity film mixed with the ever-popular amnesia trope. Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) is a housewife who is unsatisfied and looking for escape so she follows a series of personal ads in the newspaper titled Desperately Seeking Susan. An accident gets her mistaken for Susan and with her memory loss believes she is, in fact, Susan. However, the real Susan (Madonna) is in trouble because of some stolen earrings. Roberta’s new identity is thrown on her and she ends up being taken into a brand new world. Roberta, unlike many of the characters on this list, is a victim of circumstance and did not plan this change by herself. It makes her a very compelling character.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
This thriller constructs an identity literally out of thin air or rather stationary and mugs. We follow along with a series of events as they are told to two police officers by timid, captured criminal disabled Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). The story he tells involves an evil crime lord named Keyser Soze and a whole host of details. There is, however, a catch. Keyser Soze doesn’t exist and at the end of the film, we find out the entire story has been constructed from things in the office and the real crime lord is none other than Verbal himself. This film never really shows us who Roger is and with all the misdirection, our protagonist is molded in front of our very eyes.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
This period thriller introduces us to Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) an average guy blagging his way into the high life where he falls for the arrogant but beautiful Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law). He learns Dickie’s interests and how to act around him and becomes a chameleon to different surroundings until, in a heinous turn of events, he kills Dickie by mistake. He then has to assume different identities to escape the police and others in his way. It’s a far sadder affair than some of the other movies on this list, ending with Ripley being forced to kill the man he loves and confront how evil he has become.
American Psycho (2000)
This one is a little different; rather than an identity created or taken as an alias, we have a person simply putting on a persona. Except that persona covers something hideous and scary. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a Wall Street yuppie who seems like any other, however, underneath it all he’s a murderous psychopath. As the movie goes on he starts letting his murderous persona seep through his perfect Wall Street identity. Ultimately he’s greedy and the ending leaves him uncomfortable but not under any punishment. He’s left realizing that it means nothing. If anything, the film follows the same nihilistic ideals as Fight Club and stands out quite a bit from the more moral dilemmas of the previous films mentioned.
These five films show a myriad of ways characters can either assume or change an identity. There is definitely a difference between characters like Tom Ripley and Roberta whose identities started off being handed to them, compared to characters that built their own identities like John Smith and Roger. Roberta and Tom Ripley are flung into a world they don’t entirely fit into and both adapt to it. Both are also in different situations to the other characters with these two being far more marginalized in society. Patrick Bateman shows this with his materialistic lifestyle and whilst John Smith was severely impacted by the work of the businessman he doesn’t at any point get caught. He gets away with it and does not face any repercussions or have any remorse.
Overall whether it is an assumed identity, a persona, or an alias all these characters prove the genre’s love of identity tropes. While comedy tends to swerve more to the mistaken identity trope Thriller loves to mess with both the characters and the audience. Because after all there is nothing like leaving the cinema still digesting and pondering who exactly our protagonist was and whether they were telling the truth.