Breaking the 4th Wall

May 4th 2023 By Tom Powers 3 minute read

As movies become more and more creative, we get increasingly more oddball, outside the box media, designed (in an almost gimmicky way) to grab the audience's attention, convince them that what they are seeing is totally new and unique and has never been done before. One of the most recent additions to this catalogue of tropes is the act of “breaking the 4th wall”. While it may sound futuristic and Blade Runner-esque, it has actually been around since the birth of film. 

Before we carry on, if you are not aware of the lingo – the act of “breaking the 4th wall” is intentionally doing or saying something that acknowledges the medium (whether that is a film, tv show, book or even a blog - Hi Mum!!) and that the makers of said medium are aware of the audience and the audience is aware of them. 

Breaking the 4th wall can be seen as early as 1903, with The Great Train Robbery. Towards the end of the high-octane heist movie, the leader of the gang pulls out his revolver and points it at the camera (the audience) and fills them full of lead. While not explicitly acknowledging the audience, it calls attention to the artificial nature of film. 

The technique has been used countless times throughout media history, and each time builds on top of the previous entry. Remember the classic John Hughes Directed high school comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from 1987? The titular character constantly talks to the audience, as two best friends might converse with each other naturally, you, as an audience member, is part of (and accomplice to) all the events of the movie. 

The technique can be used to more hard-hitting effect though. The 2007 film Funny Games, Directed by Michael Hanake, about a pair of homicidal maniacs carrying out a home invasion on an upper class family, takes the 4th wall down with devastating effect. When the Mother manages to break out of her bonds and shoot one of the pair, effectively bringing the film to its conclusion, the remaining hooligan panics, and scrambles for the television remote, presses the rewind button and brings it back to before the event happened, effectively cheating death itself, and making sure the audience knows that there are no rules going forward and anything could happen. 

In the modern era of franchises and superheroes and billion dollar IPs, breaking the 4th wall has become a staple of some characters, and the very act of doing this technique puts butts in seats at your local cinema. The now extremely popular, and foul-mouthed superhero Deadpool played by Ryan Reynolds is always referring to the audience, not only that, he also references other films in the franchise, other versions of himself from different films (and from different studios), and at one point, comes to our world and kills Ryan Reynolds to stop him from finishing the script for Green Lantern (2011) - an infamously poorly received film.

Breaking the 4th wall can be seen in a long line of cinematic techniques of communicating to the audience. How will this technique evolve over time? Or what other techniques will surface that improve our moviegoing experiences? Where will we fi….wait, where was I going with that point again? I can’t remember. Hang on let me take a look at the beginning of the blog. Ah, yeah, that’s good, I’ll leave it there. I’m sure Lloyd can make it funny. What do you think? Person reading this blog? Is it funny? Interesting? Be honest. 

God, I’m dying for a coffee - maybe if I wait long enough someone in the office will do a round? 

Would you do me one? 
Nah, you can’t, who knows where you’re reading this from. Could be all tucked up in bed, face mask on, you’re not gonna get up and come make me a coffee, are you? 

Ah, my mouse just died. So I’ve only got the keyboard. *sigh*. Go ahead and share this blog if you want. Let me just go ahead and re-build this 4th wall real quick, back in a jiffy.

So in conclusion, breaking the 4th wall can be a fascinating tool, not only filmmakers, advertising and the like, but also those of us in the audience being dragged into it.

Related Articles