Rethinking the Mystery Genre

Guest blogger This Guy Over Here writes:

Note: there are some spoilers in this article. Please proceed with caution.

Through the years film’s different genres come and go in popularity. Some films have had their heyday (science fiction), some have seen a second coming (horror), and others have thrived by splintered into subgenres (action/superhero flicks.) But since the beginning of cinema there has been one genre that has remained consistently popular: the mystery.

There have been many incarnations of the genre, from the wispy ‘whodunit’s to gritty explorations into human nature. Most mysteries revolve around some sort of act of violence or unknown occurrence, but more times than not they are embedded with dark content (regardless of how it’s depicted.) The interest in the macabre has never waned, and if one were able to tally the number of ‘mystery’ films the amount would be staggering.

But the overuse of these stories has lead cinema (and literature) to a stalemate. It seems that every answer has been explored. The magic of mystery is wearing very thin. At some point in the history of storytelling he’s done it, she’s done it, it’s done it, they’ve done it, no one has done it, we don’t know who has done it, everyone has done it. The killer has been the mother, father, daughter, son, neighbor, stranger. The crime has been deliberate, accidental, a façade for something larger, a cover up for something entirely different. The answer has been that she’s been alive the entire time, he’s been dead all along, he’s really crazy, she’s really sane, it wasn’t real, it was real but there was a conspiracy making it seem fake. The reason behind the culprit has been jealousy, anger, love, passion, greed, necessity. It seems that the answer barrel is dry.

Part of the reason mysteries are so popular is that people love being tricked. Even more so, audiences love feeling engaged by being invited to do guesswork for the duration of the film. But a point has been reached that the ‘twist ending’ will undoubtedly be unfulfilling and entirely predictable. That is, unless, storytelling evolves.

Three films released in the last few years have their feet firmly planted in the mystery genre. Three great films that have all come under fire for their ‘twist endings’. But there’s something else going on in Zodiac (2007), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), and Shutter Island (2010), something entirely deliberate, that refutes the expectations of the genre and ultimately pushes the bounds of the genre.


Zodiac documents the case of the Zodiac Killer in the San Francisco area in the 70s. In the film, we’re given a vast amount of characters that are all involved in the case in one form or another – a slew of reporters (and a cartoonist) from the San Francisco Chronicle who receive letters from the killer – detectives who are trying to bring the killer to justice and prevent further killings. As the film progresses, tension builds, more characters are brought in – experts, more detectives, potential suspects. It’s a slow and arduous film that documents the process of investigation rather than glorifying vigilante justice or the patriotism of the justice system.

The comment that Zodiac is making is prevalent in a scene where some of the characters sit through a screening of Dirty Harry, a film also loosely based on the Zodiac killings. Having stepped out before the ending, one of the detectives embraces a cigarette as a distraction from his frustration with the film. Only moments later, the Zodiac obsessed cartoonist approaches the detective for the first time saying, “the killer gets shot in the chest, that’s how it ends.”

This is in direct opposition to the ending of Zodiac in which the actual identity of the killer that the film has centered on for three hours is never officially revealed. Many audiences felt the ending to be lackluster; the film to be too slow. But this ending, while not conclusive, is by far the most fitting. The open-endedness allows for the audience to walk away from the film with the obsessive nature it so carefully set up. To give a biased deliberation of the actual killer (who in real life was never caught,) would be an injustice to the film.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, another long-winded film (and I say that in the most loving way possible,) the story follows two vastly different characters (a middle-aged controversial journalist and a paroled goth hacker) as they inadvertently come together to solve a forty-year old missing person case. This Swedish film takes its time. For a good portion of the film, it almost seems to meander following a stream-of-consciousness that doesn’t always have to do with the mystery at hand.

Instead, Dragon Tattoo allows itself the breathing room to establish its main characters. The mystery almost becomes second fiddle to the respective dramas of the main characters. To some audiences this could seem self-indulgent, but as the film plays out we see that who these characters are play into the reason why they ultimately work together, and find romance in each other.

As they investigate, they find that there is more going on than meets the eye. They involuntarily dig up some dirt on the Nazi-sympathizer’s family who hired the journalist to find the missing daughter. The mystery splinters. The end of the film gives us the culprit with a typical suspense-ridden scene that puts the character’s lives at risk. Once the bad guy is slain, we get the real conclusion to the mystery, that the daughter has been alive all of these years and the persistence of her father trying to find her brought to the surface the other crimes in the family. But this also isn’t the end of the film. Instead the real end explores the future of the main characters that, despite immensely different pasts, have found each other.

This can partly be explained away by the fact that the film is setting up for its sequels. Even so, the process of storytelling that the film demonstrates is boldly different than other mainstream mysteries, say like The Da Vinci Code. Both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Da Vinci Code have characters that will be used again in other films, but the latter glazes over the main character’s past with brief mentions from supporting players. The main story of The Da Vinci Code hinges so greatly on the mystery at hand. Characters constantly move from one puzzle to the next with no room for character background. The end result rests greatly on the ‘reveal’ of the mystery. If that doesn’t work, the rest of the film becomes senseless and futile.

This seems to be okay by distribution company standards as they continue to market more than a handful of films each year with a “twist that you have to see to believe.” It seems as long as it gets asses in the seats opening weekend, that’s all that matters. But films that are dependent on their endings suffer in terms of longevity. Their replay value is far from desirable and their DVDs end up in the $4.99 bargain bin.

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese seems to be fully aware of the whole state of affairs regarding the downfall of unpredictability. Shutter Island is a hotly debated film for a lot of reasons, one of which being its seemingly generic ending. The film follows Detective Teddy Daniels and his partner as they are called to an island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane. Their investigation seems to turn up more questions than answers and the employees of the institution seem to know more than they are letting on. It’s all very standard procedure in the mystery genre.

As the film unfolds Teddy unravels. Conspiracies fly, and soon he’s questioning his own sanity. In an ending that could be pulled from any dime store novel, (not to discredit Dennis Lehane’s source novel,) Teddy is forced to come to terms with the fact that he actually is insane and the medical staff have been letting him roam the island living out his fantasy in hopes that it would shake loose the truth in Teddy’s mind.

Scorsese is one of the most knowledgeable filmmakers working today. To say that the ending was predictable and unconvincing is missing the point entirely. The reveal that Teddy is actually insane is not the reward of the film. It’s a means to give the story closure.

All three of the aforementioned films seem to hold the future of mystery films. At least they hold the potential evolution the genre has to take if it wants to survive. Instead of the ‘twist’ being a means to an end films will be soaking more in the ‘reveal’, that is, the conditions of the story in which the twist is embedded. Essentially, it’s taking the pressure off of the ‘twist’ to captivate audiences and putting it back into the story and characters – which is how it should be.

In Shutter Island, as Teddy tries to “get a grip” his grasp on reality loosens. As his mind loosens, more of the truth is revealed. Sure, the end of the film gives us confirmation that he’s insane, but we already know that. Of course it’s predictable. But it’s not stating the obvious. Stating the obvious would be the film ending with the twist that Teddy is insane as the final word. But Scorsese knows that the story doesn’t end there. In true Hitchcockian style, that’s just the point when it becomes most interesting.

The remaining twenty or so minutes after the ‘twist’ shows the emotional consequences of the twist. Teddy is shown coping with the new realization that he is not well and that the drama between his wife was far worse than he expected. And then, finally, he’s given a choice: to accept the sufferable reality of being cured or face a lifetime of illness and ignorance. The final impression that Scorsese leaves us on isn’t of exhilaration as most mystery thrillers do, but of question over the human condition. The conclusion, in this case, is a further extension of the story and not only a means to an end.

Screenwriter guru Robert McKee once said, “Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit,” (or at least his character said it in the film Adaptation.) But that no longer seems to be enough. The best acting, the best directing, stylish visuals – these can only salvage a film if its story is narrow sighted on a pot of gold at the end.

Twist endings have reached a point of having been played out so much that even visiting classic films that may have initiated a trend in possible endings, like the world of H.G. Clouzot (Diabolique, The Raven), or Hitchcock (take your pick), or any number of classic Film Noirs, have been ruined for future generations of film viewers. The twist ending of Diabolique, while entirely eerie, is not surprising as it’s been played out on every generic television daytime mystery show for decades.

As an audience, we’ve been trained to go into movies as active participants. Whether the film is a mystery or not, our minds constantly work to put pieces of the puzzle together. It’s all part of the process of understanding stories, which is part of the appeal of the mystery genre. But now that we have a cheat sheet a mile long, perhaps it’s time to un-train ourselves, or train ourselves differently.

Fincher, Scorsese, and a short list of other directors see the value in character and story first and foremost and ‘wowing them in the end’ as a cheap ploy. Fincher’s previous works like Seven and Fight Club are big reasons why the twist ending has been pushed so heavily over the last decade. But those films wouldn’t be half as successful or entertaining if they didn’t have brilliantly written characters and a story that actually has something to say.

And that’s precisely the point that’s being made with some recent mysteries: restructuring the storytelling process and putting faith in audiences to absorb the journey, not the answers. It doesn’t matter what the twist is as long as it fully serves the story being told.

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