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?
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.
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.