Every story has a beginning, middle, and end, and nonlinear films are not an exception. However, unlike linear narrative films, nonlinear narratives don’t follow the rules of time. Sometimes the story can start off with the end, then show the beginning, and then the middle. They aren’t in chronological order.
Because these types of films aren’t told in order, lush visuals are often used to aid the reader in following the story. The possibilities of a nonlinear narrative film are endless and can allow the viewer to interpret the story in a way that would not be possible if it were told with a linear narrative.
The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malik follows a middle-aged man named Jack as he tries to make sense of his childhood and the conflicting teachings of his parents. He feels lost and questions the meaning of his life. The film switches between scenes of Jack’s childhood, his adult life, and scenes of the galaxy and the creation of the world.
In this case, the nonlinear narrative helps to convey an overall theme of nature and grace and their effect on life. The jumps in time and perspective help the viewer see and compare the effects of nature and grace in a very broad sense as well as in Jack’s life where his father represents the aggressiveness of nature and his mother represents lovingness of grace.
Another nonlinear film is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind directed by Michel Gondry. The filmfocuses on Joel and Clementine and their relationship. After a rough breakup, the two decide to get a procedure that will erase one another from each other’s memories. Using a non-linear narrative, the story starts off with Joel and Clementine meeting again for the first time since the memory procedure. It then cuts to a few years earlier when Joel is going through the process of getting his memories of Clementine erased. As this is happening, the story of their relationship is told, starting at the end, through his dream-like memories that he is trying to hold on to as the procedure is happening.
The nonlinear narrative here is meant to mimic the human memory in that things that happened more recently are remembered more vividly. This concept is why the story of Joel and Clementine’s relationship starts at the end- because that’s the freshest memory he has.
The 1990’s classic Natural Born Killers, directed by Oliver Stone, also takes on a nonlinear narrative. The story follows the lives of two psychopathic serial killers who fall in love and become glorified by media for their mass killing sprees. The movie begins by showing one of their mass killings and then flashes back to when the two first meet. It then continues to show their killing spree and then picks up one year after they are caught and imprisoned in a mental hospital.
The nonlinear style here creates more intricate personas for the characters and shows the causes and effects of their actions in a unique way.
Although nonlinear films aren’t exactly standard in the film industry, when they are done, they definitely add an interesting perspective to a film. They are hard to execute, but with the right cuts and visuals, they can be truly beautiful.