How to Solve a Mystery in a Film

Before I begin I just want to point out that this post contains spoilers for a couple of movies that are worth watching: Drag Me To Hell, and Horsemen. Read this after you’ve seen them to really understand what I’m talking about, and to avoid ruining the movies.

Lots of different types of films contain mysteries, or puzzles for the viewer to solve. Often the viewer is not required to actually solve these puzzles because they will be presented to the viewer as the story progresses. Using some of the information that you get early on in a film it is often quite simple to come up with accurate conclusions.

Usually, the information given is quite small. It could be a small habit that a character has that doesn’t receive much focus but later gives away a secret identity. Often the information is just something that strikes you as a bit odd when it happens, can be considered insignificant to the story, and is therefore forgotten until later on.

A good example of the latter can be found in the movie Drag Me To Hell. The lead character visits her boyfriend and part of the scene is dedicated to her presenting him with a coin for his collection. This is quite a strange thing to include in a movie, and therefore it is quite likely that it has significance. What makes it more unusual is that the boyfriend takes the coin and places it in a blank envelope. Who does that?

DragMeToHell

Later on in the movie the scene is forgotten because it is deemed to be unimportant. The lead character takes a cursed button (yeah, lame, I know) and puts it in an envelope. As the lead character and her boyfriend are driving along the envelope is dropped and the lead character freaks out until she finally picks up an envelope. Yes, you guessed it, the envelopes got switched. Only, nobody notices this because the act of the boyfriend placing the coin in the envelope appeared to be such an insignificant detail at the time.

The lead character gives the envelope to a dead gypsy in a ridiculously fast filling watery grave in order to remove the curse, and then goes about her life feeling like everything is fine. The next day her boyfriend meets her at the train station and produces the button which he found in the envelope that he thought contained his coin. Suddenly everyone remembers that the boyfriend put the coin in an envelope, and that the two items would be roughly the same size and weight.

The ending of the film was obvious from the moment the button was put in an envelope, but it requires that you notice the details and don’t forget the things that strike you as a bit odd. Why would a horror film take the time to show you that the lead character’s boyfriend collects coins? Why have him put the coin in an envelope?

Another example can be found in the movie Horsemen starring Dennis Quaid. A woman is murdered and the protagonist is a detective in charge of the case. He turns up to the house and discovers that the murdered woman has three children. When our protagonist sees the children it is apparent that 2 are white, and the eldest one is Asian. A fellow officer tells our protagonist that the eldest one has was adopted, and the protagonist ironically thanks the officer for the tip.

Horsemen

Later on it is discovered that the Asian girl is actually complicit in the murder. This should really be quite obvious to anyone watching the film, but it’s easy to disregard a detail as insignificant. Why would the writer of the story bother to add the detail that one of the children was adopted, and make it so obvious by having the child be of a different race? Because the detail is what helps to solve the mystery in the movie!

Essentially all you have to do while watching a film is think “Why am I being shown this weird little detail?” Don’t forget the things you’ve noticed, and try to link them together. More often than not the entire puzzle can be solved long before the end of the film.

4 thoughts on “How to Solve a Mystery in a Film

  1. Interesting. Truth be told, I forgot about the coin being put in the envelope… even when the obvious envelope switcheroo happened I didn’t recall the dude putting his coin in one.

    You know why I, and I guess most other people who watched it, didn’t see it coming? Because the setup was so wonderfully executed. The Raimi brothers had written this little detail so seamlessly into the movie that the rather out of place occurrence appeared to be little more than intricate character development. It happened so early on that we just took it as an introduction to one of the main character’s little quirks.

    I’m not sure I agree with your rationale. I don’t want to try to solve the mystery before the movie is finished… I won’t enjoy the movie as much. Of course some set-ups are so bloody obvious that you can’t help but see it coming. Case in point; Gossip. That film sucked and I’d already solved the mystery and predicted the twist ending by about 30 minutes in.

  2. I think the difference between Drag Me to Hell and Horsemen (I haven’t seen the latter) is fairly clear. Good writing vs. bad writing.

    I would place a bet that the reason the Asian girl was written into Horsemen, and made so obvious, is to make the movie not jump a great big fat shark when the murder is revealed. I bet the writers needed a way to tie things up and this was the easiest option. As for Drag Me to Hell… there could have been a thousand ways for the button to find its way back to Christine but they used the coin-in-the-envelope to bring a smile to your face and make you go “Oh, yeahhhh!!”

  3. I think whenever I see a story with some form of mystery involved I just want to solve it. I’m like that with most things though. If I see a puzzle I like to give it a go, unless it’s some frivolous sudoku or crossword.

    Horsemen isn’t a bad film, but I did get the feeling that some bits of it were a bit random. A bit like they were tagged on at the end. Half way through the film you randomly get introduced to these two characters, and some of their back-story from nowhere. They’re not even in the film for more than 20 minutes.

    It is sometimes nice not to solve the mystery and to get that sense of “Oh, yeahhhh” that you mentioned, but more often than not I’d rather solve it and feel like a smug, self-satisfied loser. 🙂

  4. I hate films that do that… You think they got to a point and went “Shit, the movie is only going to be an hour long… that’s not good. Let’s add some random bullshit in to fill the other 45 minutes.”

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