Mystery movie lovers are like psychologists because to solve the puzzle on the screen, we have to study people. Who can forget completing the “Citizen Kane” puzzle, discovering why Kane’s dying word was “Rosebud”? Or when we realize in “Chinatown” that the young girl whose custody is being questioned is both the sister and the daughter of Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Fay Dunaway)? When Hitchcock’s classic, “Psycho,” is mentioned the slasher shower scene pops into most peoples’ minds, but the puzzle wasn’t solved until we learned that the young proprietor Bates (Anthony Perkins) of the Bates Motel had kept his mother alive in his mind by dressing in her clothes, wearing a wig, and killing people that threatened his/her way of seeing the world.
In suspense or thriller movies, like “The Day After Tomorrow” and the “Dark Knight” we know who the good guys and bad guys are right from the beginning. The bad guys often have great strengths, such as an army, Mother Nature gone wild, a creepy, psychopathy focused on plans to end the world or take over the drug trade. In suspense and thrillers the good guys have the problem to solve from the first scene. Our job in the audience is to watch the good guys work out a successful conclusion. We root for the protagonist but we don’t help him or her.
In mystery movies, the writer and director give us the problem to solve. We do not just root for the protagonist; we’re on his or her team studying each scene with a critical eye. We, the audience are given the task of studying the people and relationships as the story unfolds.
We’re alert for clues. We expect that some people will turn out to be not who they seem to be. We look for inconsistencies in character, such as when a person’s words or emotions do not match his behavior--the man who claims to love his wife but has been staying late at the office since hiring a new assistant. Or the son who says he’s close to his father but doesn’t know his father’s birthday. We look for a character who angers easily, one whose background is fuzzy, and, of course, who might be struggling in a love triangle.
A murder doesn’t have to occur for the movie to be a mystery. The audience for “Slumdog Millionaire” had the task, along with the Indian police, of figuring out how a boy growing up in the dump knew answers to sophisticated questions on a quiz show. In “Doubt” the audience is asked to figure out whether a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is guilty of a nun’s (Meryl Streep) claim that he had an improper relationship with a schoolboy.
Enjoying mystery movies is not a spectator sport but an interactive project. Thus, mystery movie lovers do not settle for screenplays or presentations that are illogical or carelessly made. A horrendous natural disaster or a bad guy with super powers doesn’t make for a satisfying experience the way a good mind teaser does. The pieces of the puzzle have to fit logically, but we must be fooled until the right luscious moment.