Many movie buffs realize there are more bad voice-overs than good ones. Telling the plot of the story as if the audience can’t figure it out visually is insulting and detracts from the scene. The function of good voice-overs is to provide a contextual layer that enhances the themes of the story or magnifies a character in a way that is not seen with the visual narrative. If you ask for a top 10 list of best voice-overs in film, many would include classics by Billy Wilder, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Fincher, and the Cohen Brothers. Some have argued that Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby with Morgan Freeman‘s soothing voice is technically bad voice-over narration. I admit it’s true. Imagine the pair without his hallmark voice. Would the stories still be touching? Yes. Did the voice-over help us see the story on another level or reveal the principal character in a way that enhanced him? Nope. Did it complicate the point of view? Yes. (And still, I love both films anyway.)
The best voice-over narrations reveal the inner battles of the character. The tension and the eerieness catapults to great heights when the audience is bound to the mind of a maniac like Alex in Clockwork Orange. Better yet is when the layers unfold to reveal the unreliable narrator or one who speaks from the grave like Joe Gillis. That’s a dimension that enhances the story.
One Great Example
Apocolypse Now (1979) is a film with great voice-over narration. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) journeys into the forbidden inner realm of Cambodia with orders to assassinate the Army’s fallen angel, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard ruminates about Kurtz. He struggles with the morality of his mission. The jungle and the river and the motley crew who travel with him seep into his system. Without the voice-over narration, we would not be privy to the unusual relationship that grows between Willard and Kurtz even though they have never met. By the end of the film, no voice-over is necessary. Our anticipation of meeting Kurtz combined with the exoticism of the heart of darkness and fueled by the singing of Jim Morrison provided one of the more captivating climaxes in cinematic history. We have been primed to wonder if Kurtz is crazy and we are horrified to the extent at which war has pillaged the minds and landscape along the way.
One Bad Example
Molly’s Game (2018). With a voice-over style that reminded me of The Wolf of Wall Street, the fast-talking, no-nonsense narration by the principal character Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) interjects in and out of the film and shares her story as though she were giving an interview to a reporter. Explaining the lingo of poker players with similar on-screen graphics used in The Big Short to simplify the concept of the game for audience members who might not know the culture of poker was debatably effective. Jessica’s voice-over was monotone. She’s smart and tough just like a man, but her narration lacked a personality. This is unfortunate since the story-line about the real-life Molly Bloom is fascinating.
The Molly Bloom voice-over narration didn’t help. Especially when she shared scenes with her two leading men who gave the best performances–Idris Elba as her attorney Charley Jaffey, and Kevin Costner as her father Larry Bloom. Elba and Costner breathed life into their characters displaying them as smart and tough, but their human frailties and emotions were present throughout the film. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s Molly hides behind a hard shell, but she comes across as a robotic doll. The best performance I’ve seen Chastain give was as Celia Foote in The Help. Ironically, she shines best as an actress when she’s not smart or driven.
Please, won’t you share your favorite voice-over and explain how the voice-over enhances the film or magnifies a character with dimension? Or, what’s a bad example you’ve seen lately?