The Late Movies: Great Voiceover

Ransom Riggs

In film school, it's a lesson they try to hammer into you early and often: using voiceover in your movies is bad form. It's a lazy way to tell a story. It's undramatic. It'll make you look like an amateur. But some of my favorite films use voiceover, and use it very well -- and I'd like to share a few of those here.

This ranks as probably my favorite movie of all time, and Sissy Spacek's poetic voiceover at the very beginning of the movie sets such an interesting tone, while communicating all kinds of backstory in a really succinct way. It's great.

Days of Heaven
Director Terrence Malick does it again in Days of Heaven, sporadically narrated by the semi-inarticulate, streetwise sister-of-Richard-Gere character. What I love about this VO, besides its rough-around-the-edges beauty, is that it seems like it was improvised. Skip the credits and go to 2:00. VO starts at 3:20.

Something about the Days of Heaven voiceover reminds me of Rat's voiceover from possibly the best documentary ever made, Streetwise. Except that Days of Heaven is a narrative fiction film with voiceover that sounds extemporized, and Streetwise is a documentary with voiceover that sounds written. Whatever works! Skip to 1:04. A NSFW word or two.

Martin Scorsese uses voiceover heavily throughout both Goodfellas and Casino, and he uses it like nobody else -- there's so much of it that it becomes a narrative tapestry, almost like Ray Liotta's character is reading his life story aloud along to moving pictures -- and constantly interrupting it and commenting on it. One of the more famous bits of voiceover in the movie is the much-parodied mobster introduction scene:

American Psycho features an amazing opening voiceover monologue by Christian Bale. We watch his morning routine while listening to him describe himself. On the surface it all seems so normal and banal ... but as we listen to him talk, something very creepy begins to taint it. For some reason, YouTube has disabled embedding of this clip, but you can watch it here.

A Clockwork Orange
There are many great mini-monologues by Alex in A Clockwork Orange, many of them in scenes too violent to post on this blog. Of course, Kubrick had great source material -- Anthony Burgess' novella -- which makes writing voiceover ever so much easier. Still, he does it with aplomb. Here's a trifling, safe-for-work example:

About Schmidt
Alexander Payne -- director, most recently, of Sideways -- often uses voiceover to great effect, most notably in his now-classic film Election. However, clips aren't available on YouTube, so instead we'll take a look at two scenes from his subtle masterpiece About Schmidt. Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, has recently lost his wife, is helpless to stop his only daughter from marrying a guy he considers low-class, and spends much of the movie driving around the country in a ridiculously large RV, revisting sites from his past and looking to inject a little meaning into his life. He doesn't find much. The film's voiceover is all Nicholson reading letters he's sent to a child in Africa that he's sponsoring -- and they all begin "Dear Ndugu." This is the final "Ndugu" letter.

And this, after many letters sent to Ndugu, is the only response Nicholson gets, at the very end of the movie. It'll make ya cry.