The Unreliable Narrator of LIFE ITSELF

By: Oumar Diagne

Life Itself is a 2018 film produced by Amazon Studios and comes from from the mind of Dan Fogelman (This Is Us). In his directorial debut, Fogelman takes us from the streets of New York to the olive fields of Spain. On this journey, we follow a cast of characters through their loves, their loses, their grief and for some, their joy. This film is one of my favorites of 2018. Full of pain, sadness, laughter, and tragedy.

Life Itself is carried by strong performances from a stellar cast. Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, and Olivia Cooke all play a role in delivering a story that is far more than meets the eye. The film is described as a Romantic Drama, a moniker that does not do it justice. The driving thrust of the narrative of Life Itself is not only the story but its structure. Its brilliance lies in how the message and the narrative blend together seamlessly to offer a film that not only made me feel a great deal for its characters but also forced me to look at my own life and the narratives that surround us all.

FROM THIS POINT THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST ACT OF LIFE ITSELF. 

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Olivia Wilde as Abby in LIFE ITSELF

The central theme of Life Itself is delivered by Abby (Olivia Wilde). While in college and writing her final thesis, she chooses the unreliable narrator as her subject. She argues that every narrator is unreliable because the perspective of the person telling it blurs every story. Heroes become villains or villains become heroes, all based on who is narrating. Although Abby doesn’t make this claim until about 25 minutes into the film, Life Itself lets us know from the very opening sequence that we cannot trust all we see or hear.

The movie opens on a man speaking to his therapist. While the camera pans closer and closer to him, giving him the standard Hollywood “hero” shot, the unmistakable voice of Samuel L Jackson narrates to the audience. It’s funny, it’s charming… it’s also completely false. The man on the therapist’s couch is not our hero, but the movie wants you to believe for a brief moment that he is.

The camera and narration shifts over to the therapist herself (Annette Bening). Now she’s our hero. She’s the one that we will follow and will lead us down a typical three-act structured film of love, romance, and self-discovery. Nope…She’s not. The prologue ends with her being hit by a bus. She’s lying in the street, blood pouring from her head. She is not coming back, folks. Samuel Jackson makes a cameo appearance at this point and decides to leave the film. He can’t take it… Can you?

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Samuel Jackson & Oscar Isaac in LIFE ITSELF

This entire sequence, we find out, was nothing more than the ramblings of a mad man. In this case, Will (Oscar Isaac), whom we meet in a coffee shop, working on a screenplay featuring an unreliable narrator played by Samuel Jackson. Will’s wife has recently left him and he is now a broken shell. He is full of pain, anger, and sadness. Pouring alcohol into his double espresso, before taking Xanax and howling Bob Dylan lyrics from the top of his lungs.

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Oscar Isaac as Will in LIFE ITSELF

In our first foray into the film’s interesting approach to telling its peculiar story, we follow Will as he heads to his therapist’s office. The office is the same exact room that we see in the prologue. Same furniture, same decoration, even the same therapist. We find out here that Will has been in an institution for three months. He is overly medicated and emotionally scarred. He makes weak attempts at humor, but it does nothing to hide the intense pain within him.

Will opens up. He tells the therapist about his life with Abby. How happy they were. How much they loved each other. How they laughed together, listened to Bob Dylan, played with their dog Fuckface. In his eyes, Abby was perfect.

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Will, Abby & Fuckface LIFE ITSELF

Will goes further back, and tell us the story of Abby. Where she was born, how her parents met, fell in love, and eventually died in a car accident with Abby in the backseat. Will adds a particularly gruesome detail and watches for the therapist’s reactions, just like any good storyteller would.

He talks about Abby’s growth. Her life with an abusive uncle, how she shot him in the knee when she was just 14 in order to get him to stop. Will speaks of her time in college and how she blossomed, excelled and met him; the perfect man for her. We see flashbacks of when they first met, and how Abby asks him if he’ll ever ask her out, he responds:

will abby college
Abby & Will in College

Will: “Abby, I’m waiting for the right moment ’cause when I ask you out, there’s not gonna be any turning back for me. I’m not gonna date anybody else for the rest of my life. I’m not gonna love anybody else for the rest of my life. I’m waiting for the right moment ’cause when I ask you out, it’s gonna be the most important moment of my life. And I just wanna make sure that I get it right.”

Don’t we all wish we could speak so eloquently? In the right moment, be able to expertly say and express exactly how we feel? In a way that feels almost prescient? Will does. Constantly! In every single flashback, we see him showing us the idealized version of their relationship in his mind. He wants us to understand, how perfect Abby was. How perfect their life together was. It is imperative for him that the therapist understands. Will has lost Abby. He cannot get her back. Not because she doesn’t want to be with him… but because Abby died. 6 months ago, she was hit by a bus. The same bus that the therapist was hit by in Will’s discarded screenplay. Abby loses her life, but she was pregnant; the baby lived. Abby gave birth to their daughter Dylan before leaving Will forever.

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Abby Pregnant & Will

We are not told these details until the very end of Will’s story. Will has a daughter, a reason to wake up, someone to take care of. Someone who needs him. But Will would never meet his daughter. Will would never leave the therapists office. With a heavy heart, tears in his eyes, more lost than we had ever seen him up until that point, Will tells the therapist: “I don’t want to do this anymore. (…) I’m not the hero of this story.” Before pulling a gun out of his bag and killing himself.

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Will Remembers Abby

Will is not a hero; he’s just like every one of us. An imperfect human being dealing with immeasurable pain. He didn’t want to continue living without Abby. He couldn’t handle what would inevitably be a very difficult journey. He could not be there for his daughter. Just like Samuel Jackson in the prologue, he decided that he could not handle this tragedy. However, before doing so, he wanted someone to understand. He told a story that showed how deep his love for Abby was. How perfect their life was. How without her, there is no reason to live. How he knew it since their time at college. Will walked into that office knowing he would never walk out, yet still with the need to have someone understand his decision.

It strikes me how often we do this. We talk about ourselves, our lives as though they are stories. With a clear and easy narrative. There are heroes, there are villains. There are people who help us, people who break us. Only in as far as they relate to us. How many times have you recounted an event to someone? Do you remember exaggerating certain elements, taking away certain details to put yourself and the other players in a proper light?

This is exactly what Life Itself does. From the opening frame, we are told stories but through the eyes of others. We are never present for any of these moments. We have no idea if what we are seeing is true, or happened exactly as is depicted. This adds another interesting layer to how this film is viewed. Every scene, every line of dialogue must be followed closely. It forces us to find the truth.

Will’s story is only the first act of the film but plays such a crucial role in the lives of so many people. Life Itself is not a standard film. Nor is it always an easy watch. Sometimes it feels almost as though it wants the characters, and the audience, to suffer. But, its aim and message are true. Life is hard to navigate. We never know what is waiting for us, how much joy or pain we will experience, but love might be just around the corner.

Life Itself is available to stream on AMAZON PRIME.

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