The Dubious Necessity of Explanation: The Shift of the Modern Mystery

Stephen King once wrote that “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” In a horror story, the victim keeps asking “Why?” But there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end. – Alan Wake (2010)

A question works of the mystery genre are constantly trying to answer.  Picture: Wade M (Flickr)
A question works of the mystery genre are constantly trying to answer. Picture: Wade M (Flickr)

A mystery story is one where the facts central to its understanding are hidden for the majority of its telling. Ostensibly, it is a story which its holes are filled in by the viewer’s mind as one is watching it. Yet, the answers which one claims to be true are just reflections shaped by other story elements seen over and over again. Are mystery movies just movies hidden behind a veil of pretension or intentional avoidance of the central plot? Mystery movies are not exclusively restricted to films where the protagonist/s are in search of an elusive killer/antangonist (e.g. Seven, Zodiac), but movies where the central premise is not revealed or rather pieces of it are hinted to until near its conclusion. This is not to say that the term of ‘mystery’ is confined to cinema, but is a tradition of literature stretching back hundreds of years. Yet, lately, there has been a shift in what we understand to be a mystery and there needs to be some re-evaluation as to how necessary a story-telling device it is, in today’s over-saturated media world.

In order to illustrate this, I will refer to a British television series called Utopia (soon to be remade for HBO by David Fincher), a series which at least for the first four episodes leaves its audience intentionally uninformed about the main premise or the motivations of the characters. Broadly and reservedly speaking, Utopia tells the story of four ordinary people who get accidentally get caught up in a mystery bigger than any of them could imagine, mixing elements of thriller, while also incorporating black humour. You can not recommend this show without omitting the major concept which it rides on and it is arguable that it is most enjoyed when you have no idea what is happening. There is some undefinable “je ne sais quoi” (“I don’t know what”) in these works, but it is always that which remains in our minds afterwards. Perhaps, it is the innate desire to work something out, or the inability to leave things unresolved which keeps us watching. However, just as there is a conscious decision to create a mystery, there is also a certain semi-conscious allowance of your inhibitions to be forgotten. Regardless, like that little glimmer of gold atop a pile of dirt, it is instinctive and indeed, built in over years of conditioning through art to want to keep digging until the truth, regardless of how rewarding it is, is revealed.

A statue of the quintessential mystery figure, Sherlock Holmes.  Picture: shining.darkness (Flickr)
A statue of the quintessential mystery figure, Sherlock Holmes. Picture: shining.darkness (Flickr)

Firstly, let us try and deconstruct exactly what the term ‘mystery’ and its many manifestations have entailed over the years. In the early 1800’s, the mystery novel often focused upon the solving of a crime, where a detective solved a central crime over the course of the novel. This method of writing was popularised by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and Agatha Christie’s novels featuring characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. These are often referred to as ‘Whodunnit?’ stories, where they have a often predictable where we experience the crime, the detective character trying to deduce who the criminal is, with the story directing the audience to suspect certain characters, usually misleading the audience away from the real criminal. However, for this purpose, the term ‘mystery’ will be used as to describe any piece of art which consciously does not explicitly show or tell the audience something essential to its understanding. This is not to say that films like the original Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back are mystery movies because we do not know that Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker, and thus, Luke’s father are mystery movies. A mystery must be one where the audience is aware that they are being misled or confused, rather than unaware that they are watching something which it is not. Therefore, because this genre has grown from the classical literature genre to something more indicative of a demand, there must be some subconscious thought underlying this demand. However, it is growing more dubious with today’s growing supply of entertainment if such works are necessary.

The ‘unknown’ is one of the most powerful narrative drives which can be used. Whole television series have depended on stretching the unknown out for long periods of time (e.g. Lost, Twin Peaks) and films are often distinguished by their confusing, yet not explicitly laid out premises (e.g. Donnie DarkoMulholland Dr.). To explain why we like these movies or television shows is not as simple as describing one particular element, such as the acting or the score, because all of things are so intimately related to the fact that, at least on a first viewing or experiencing of an art work, you have a limited grasp on what you are watching. The appeal and thus, appreciation of these works are constantly resting on that first time we watched something, and it is this memory which keeps us returning to these movies and recommending it to others. It is an experience unlike any other, when you have no idea what is going on. The very fact that this initial state is so enjoyable indicates that this feeling is not seeked so as to solve the mystery, but it is the mystery which we want to remain; unsolved. However, here is the inherent paradox. Although the ‘unknown’ elements of these works are what draw the audience to watch them, this means that there must come a time when that mystery is revealed, and the magic which kept us so enthralled is considerably diminished. Like the magician explaining his magic trick, the beautiful piece of art is just seen to have been hidden behind a veil. But, does this fact that the reality is less than what we expected it to be devalue the impact that the mystery had on us in the first place?

The path forward is unknown, but it is the one we often take.  Picture: clry2 (Flickr)
The path forward is unknown, but it is the one we often take. Picture: clry2 (Flickr)

While there is something inherently counter-intuitive about creating a mystery within the telling a story, it is necessary to differentiate your work from those of others by doing so. To describe a show like Utopia to the ordinary watcher is difficult without giving away the underlying premise of it all, but that is not what makes it so attractive, at least on the first viewing. Films like Catfish and The Cabin in the Woods are marketed under the idea that the central premise should not be divulged by anyone. As such, Catfish’s tagline is ‘Don’t Let Anybody Tell You What it Is’, which creates this intrigue around what it is, allowing the viewer’s expectations to snowball and speculate to the level of preposterousness. However, the ultimate reveal is then often disappointing. Therefore, it is the lead-up to this reveal which is more valuable than the reveal itself. On account of a more literate and narratively aware audience raised on films and television shows, where plots are rehashed and over-used narrative devices (i.e. tropes), it is hard to market just another crime or science-fiction/supernatural film. Most people can see the premise from a mile away, unless you consciously try and obscure it by misleading them away from it. However, as long as the lead-up to a reveal is effective, then surely it has some value as an artistic piece. Nevertheless, it seems natural to see the mystery genre as a con job on people to see films, television shows or otherwise which they may not necessarily see if the premise was explicitly stated to them.

During the hey-day of the cinema, families, couples and film buffs would go out for a treat every fortnight or so, and these movies were rarely complex, and could usually be summed up in a short sentence or categorised using genres like ‘romance’ or ‘crime’. While they did not know the whole story, they knew, generally speaking, what they were going to see. For example, if you went to see a ‘horror’ movie, you would probably see a group of ordinary people having to flee from a supernatural or powerful force in order to survive and overcome this force. These types of films have a quaint simplicity to them, but they simply just could not be marketed today, at least in order to achieve commercial success. Among on-line streaming services such as Netflix, such movies pale in comparison to modern block-busters. However, it is these high-concept block-busters, or rather remakes of well-known works or characters which are achieving the most success. Yet, it is the ones which are not reducible to a single image or description (not films e.g. like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is essentially described in its title alone) which represent the more creatively innovative. However, they may be deemed as deceptive in their marketing strategy, by hiding the premise or true message. Admittedly, there must be some unknown knowledge about a piece of art and some interpretation left to others, but when modern mysteries are so intimately connected with the fact that they are covered in mystery, they begin to lose their true identity, which can be divulged on several viewings.

Mystery stories often confuse and mislead the viewer, leaving them unsure of what to make of it.  Picture: Brett Farmlloe (Flickr)
Mystery stories often confuse and mislead the viewer, leaving them unsure of what to make of it. Picture: Brett Farmlloe (Flickr)

The best of mysteries should be like searching for gold. Looking at the surface, you are not quite sure what to make of it, it is dark, muddy, with speckles of gold tempting you to dig further. Underneath the mystery of Utopia is an exciting thriller exploring and challenging the viewer’s morality and socio-environmental perspective on the world. Underneath the mystery of Zodiac is a character piece of obsession. Underneath the mystery of Memento is a complex tale of deception, human vulnerability and the nature of truth. Using methods to hide or obscure the deeper meaning of a piece should only be done if that amplifies the impact or changes the meaning, or in itself, amplifies the meaning of the piece even by consciously omitting the premise. For instance, the work of David Lynch is often shrouded in mystery, so that the mystery surrounding why things are happening or why people are doing things explain the value of the work. Mysteries should not just be a temporary distraction from the plot, but integral to its understanding, or, at the very least, entertaining in its own right. Using a recent example, which seems to have promise, David Fincher’s upcoming film Gone Girl leaves the prospective audience with one main question: did the protagonist (Ben Affleck) kill his wife? While this seems to be central problem which the film will show, it leaves us guessing as to whether or not this will define the film. Inherent in films like these is the drive to ‘know’, even though it is not easy to describe why.

Therefore, should films aim to never explain themselves to the viewer? It would be counter-productive in terms of creativity to not conclude the mystery. An example would be Twin Peaks, which ended its two-season run on a cliff-hanger, never to return, essentially leaving most characters well-being in serious question. As the season end of a soap opera, it works perfectly. Yet, as the conclusion of a television series, it was unsatisfying. While it is impossible to suggest that more films end on cliffhangers or without concluding the story, it is easier to say that films should not always aim to satisfy in their conclusions. Not only would such a choice separate such a film from the rest, but it would open its interpretation into infinity. To engender such a community where interpretation is seen in the most mainstream of films is the next step in a more culturally aware people. With sites such as Reddit aplenty nowadays, there is no end to the amount of discussion which could be had. Leaving some things unexplained to the viewer is needed in a film and movies for entertainment purposes need to do it more so, just to keep some of that magic of film still alive. Still, that deep and unexplainable need to know will always be present and should be explained sufficiently, but the artist should always leave that little doubt in the viewer’s mind, to put a crack in the illusion.

The mystery film is dependent on people’s wish to know the secret, or to use the aforementioned metaphor, to keep digging until they uncover the gold nugget. However, modern mystery movies are a lot less about actually digging and more about sitting back while you watch people dig. While there are still some works which demand your attention in revealing the mystery (e.g. BBC’s Sherlock), most of them just constantly mislead you as to who the killer is. Mystery movies need to realise that the who is not as interesting to the viewers as to the why. Still, there is some innate emptiness in us which makes us have to know what is going to happen. However, what people are beginning to forget is that it is the dirt which is often the most interesting. In True Detective, we do not really care who the murderer is, it is about Rust and Marty’s relationship and individual hardships. The secret or the ‘mystery’ is really just a narrative device which keeps the characters moving. Therefore, what modern films is that the mystery is representative of something larger within the plot. Just because you know the plot twist of Fight Club or The Prestige does not take the place of watching it. Nor does watching a mystery movie once make you able to fully understand it. Therefore, films should attempt to work with this knowledgeable audience of new generation which have been fed narratives since the early stages of cognitive thought to diverge from the self-representative works of popular cinema.

Works with this element of the ‘unknown’, or rather an element which is obscured from the perspective of the audience is one which is easily explained without indicating that not knowing is essentially to its enjoyment. It is as much a part of its definition as the premise or plot. Harking back to early crime novels, narrative complexity has advanced in many ways in order to show the need to divulge from repetitive plot-lines or motifs. Below the surface is a psychological necessity within us to discover the unknown. Therefore, the film-maker or artist gives us a puzzle and makes us solve it during its own solution being deduced on screen. It is a necessary part of the cinema, in terms of a marketing sense, in that it draws in the audience without any real explanation of what the plot is. However, it can also be misleading at times, in that films use mystery as a veil to cover-up a mediocre plot. The device of postponing the reveal of an crucial piece of information should only be used if it adds to the understanding of the film as a whole. Ultimately, however, the mystery should stand as a representative for the piece as a whole, and the who or what is just a need to fill in the obvious empirical hole left open.

Art constitutes the exposure of a metaphysical hole in understanding.  Picture: Timothy Pierce (Flickr)
Art constitutes the exposure of a metaphysical hole in understanding. Picture: Timothy Pierce (Flickr)

Yet, it is this hole which is fundamental to the understanding of art and why society and humanity continue to pursue it. While many films are just escapist fiction, the very best of art is that which tries to fit another piece into the puzzle. Therefore, the many divides between art and entertainment can be filled in via the mysterious. While, in a economic sense, it is necessary to create something which can be sold in a short sentence, art should not be so easily represented, and instead, remain an enigma. The formulaic equations used in creating modern movies have dimmed the creative spark and certain “je ne sais quoi” of film-making. In essence, this is what film-making is created for: to explain the seemingly unexplainable and to realise the seemingly unrealisable. To never just satisfy the audience, but keep them digging for more. That is the never-ending puzzle.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My name is Matthew Sims and I am a 25 year-old journalist from Victoria, Australia, writing about film and TV on the side.

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  1. I write mysteries and have always loved to read and watch them. You did a good overview of the current state of the genre. Thanks!

  2. daysofourlives

    I’m not sure if some of these movies blows the mind or devastates it.

  3. What a brilliant show Utopia is! God I love Brit television.

  4. Great piece! Let me leave you all with some of my personal favorite mystery movies:
    The Vanishing (Sluizer)

    Cache (Haneke)

    Twentynine Palms (Dumont) – whoa!

    Oldboy (Chan-Wook)

    Blood Simple (Coen Bros.)

    Suture (McGhee/Siegel)

    The Game (Fincher)

    The Conversation/Blow-Up (Coppola/Antonioni) – companion pieces

    The Usual Suspects (Singer)

    Double Indemnity (Wilder)

    …and…simply….Hitchcock, the whole darn filmography.

    • Matthew Sims

      I liked Oldboy, been meaning to watch Blood Simple, liked The Game, still do not get why every one thinks The Usual Suspects is so good, I thought it was alright, but nothing that special, watched most of Hitchcock. Thank you for the recommendations, will get on to watching them.

  5. Wow, this was a really intriguing article, thank you, and Utopia is so good. I haven’t experienced a piece of work this subversive since, well, maybe ever but at least the early 1980s.

    I gather this is being remade for American TV with David Fincher directing the pilot – I would be absolutely astounded if it isn’t watered down for airing over there as it’s way, way too close to the knuckle re many US, er, “incidents” of the last few decades …

    • Matthew Sims

      No, thank you! I was blown away by Utopia, and, while I am looking forward to seeing what Fincher and Gillian Flynn will do with it, I am expecting to be disappointed.

  6. Casilla

    Good points!

  7. Jae Minton

    Excellent article! It’s refreshing to read a strong point of view and one that sums up a change in the industry! Thank you… I’m passing this along!

  8. James Judd

    Mulholland Drive is pretty easy once you juggle the time-line:

    Jilted lesbian contracts the murder of her estranged lover and receipt for completion of the job is a blue key. She can’t live with what she’s done and commits suicide. Pandora’s Box was opened with the contract and exchange of money (the bum behind the wall at the diner) … the old couple are gateway demons, ushering her into hell to relive her life over and over and over but hope was released with all the evils and thus her hellish dream which recreates her life is done in a stylized way with an upbeat tone.

    • Matthew Sims

      I do need to see it again and I suppose it is easy to get, but still it is written and displayed in such a way that it is not easy to deduce.

  9. VERY refreshing writeup!

  10. These are all examples of great film making. Perhaps not as high art, but an engaging mystery and a funny movie is The Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. I highly recommend it. Great soundtrack too.

  11. Otham Li

    Angel Heart my friends. Mickey Rourke’s best role before he did the wrestling thing, and the last time he looked like a human being.

  12. Sherwood

    The mystery and suspense titles are the best ones to discover. I recommend these gems…
    1. Le Corbeaux (1943) Henri-Georges Clouzot – one of the best non-hollywood war-time period mysteries, and a great film overall.
    2. Garde à Vue (Under Suspicion) (1981) – probably the best psychological duel of cat (great role of Lino Ventura as the police commissaire) and a mouse (wonderful Michel Serrault as suspect).
    3. Deceiver (aka Liar) with Tim Roth, Chris Penn and Michael Rooker in his best role. The movie is like a chess game, I’d say it’s the best mystery of the 90ies after Usual Suspects.
    4. Una Pura Formalità (A Pure Formality). Gérard Depardieu as a weird suspect who doesn’t understand what’s going on? Roman Polanski as a coldblooded ispector without a name? Twisted plot mixed with Giuseppe Tornatore direction? = One of the best mysteries I’ve ever seen and of course a must-see for all genre fans.

  13. I like this piece. I think the blurring of boundaries between mystery work that’s happened over the past few years is a wonderful thing for viewers and film/content makers alike.

  14. EliPatten

    Trying to describe Utopia for a colleague it stuck me how utterly silly the premise of the series sound.

    • Matthew Sims

      It is when you think about it, but it is presented via beautiful choreography, flawed characters and an interesting philosophical take on it all. Thank you for commenting.

  15. What a fantastic article! I’m an avid consumer of both modern and classic mystery films.

  16. Sweet, time to watch some of these movies.

  17. I’d say ‘Utopia’ is in a class of its own.

  18. Nice read. I hadn’t thought about mysteries in “categories” before.

    • Matthew Sims

      Thank you for commenting, Turk. It is not an easy categorical distinction to consciously make, but there is certain features which are common between texts.

  19. The Gone Girl book is very well written, had me twisting and turning. If anyone is going to watch David’s adaptation, read the book first.

  20. Cochramo

    Utopia is a subversive conspiracy thriller like no other I have seen before.

  21. Great article! Very intelligent read! I’m a huge fan of the genre and have found its recent turns fascinating. With TV and film nowadays, complete darkness overshadows balance or joy of any kind. It’s difficult because, in keeping this specific tone, binge-watching becomes a bit of chore. Eventually, the heavy tone weights the viewer down. However, because the quality is of a higher standard nowadays, people tend to keep going. There are obviously a lot of moral and ethical effects that come of watching something so dark and intense for extended periods.

    • Matthew Sims

      Thankyou! Yeah, it’s inevitable that a television show or movie (series) will reach a point where the mystery is not enough to keep us going. That’s why shows like ‘True Detective’ or ‘Fargo’ are so popular, and these shows are/were great. Ethical issues are such a massive part of narrative fiction nowadays that they are often weaved into mystery films or television shows, and are enhanced when in a miniseries like the aforementioned works. Thank you for commenting, Thomas.

  22. Brilliant and mind-opening.

  23. Liz Kellam

    I like what you stated about Fight Club and The Prestige. Even knowing the twist, I can watch the films over and over. That is great storytelling. Films that depend on the twist, like The Sixth Sense or The Village (or most any Shyamalan film) lose their appeal to rewatch.

    • Matthew Sims

      The characters need to exist, i.e. that they do not exist to lead up to the twist, but that the twist comes through naturally because of some causal action. Thank you for commenting, Liz.

  24. There is quite a bit to commend with Fr. Brown.

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