Mystery Films: Investigating the Unresolved

By Varun Raman · February 9, 2012

Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”

Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte, saw mystery as something hidden being incrementally made visible, but never fully revealed. Our experiences in life don’t amount to the whole truth. It is simply not possible to have complete knowledge of events we don’t participate in, or of things we don’t see. As in theatre, there is a stage on which we witness developments unfolding before us, but we remain oblivious to what occurs behind the red curtain.

The mystery film is fascinating and engrossing, because it requires the viewer to be an active participant.  Along with the protagonist, they learn of plot developments through clues and scant details. In The Tenant, Eyes Wide Shut and Mulholland Drive, both the protagonist and the viewer are bound together by the reminder that not only are the worlds they live in filled with mystery, but so are the unvisited recesses of their minds.

Whilst on the quest to solve a mystery, the protagonists inadvertently explore themselves. Looking for the tangible facts of life only takes them as far as discovering the emotional truths within. The protagonist’s outer conflict is the original goal that ultimately becomes secondary to their inner conflict.

For this to work, the protagonist has to be in almost every scene. The viewer feels that they’re one and the same, having accompanied them through every revelation. The beauty is that the mystery film’s vicarious experience can be enhanced by the metaphysical.

Dreams, memories and fantasies are valid means to emotional truths, as are the occurrences presently taking place in the protagonist’s supposed reality. Logical reasoning may have to be cast out in favor of intuition, and the inexplicable can be taken as legitimate leads in an investigation.


The Protagonist: Inner and Outer Conflicts

As always, the setting must compliment the inner and outer conflicts of the protagonist. The Tenant’s Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is an outsider – a Polish immigrant living in Paris and a newcomer to an apartment building inhabited by a hostile, close-knit community. Polite, shy and accommodating, he promises his landlord that he will not be a difficult, noisy bachelor to live with. The fact that his water tap is unusually noisy suggests that the setting and elements will unfortunately not be in his favor, and eventually, have an exceedingly cruel effect on his circumstances.

Trelkovsky’s outer conflict lies in the mystery of his new apartment.  The only reason it is available is because its previous tenant, Simone Choule, is close to death, having jumped out of the window. As Trelkovsky’s relationship with his neighbors deteriorates, he begins to question whether they drove Simone to suicide, and if they harbor the same intentions for him. His inner conflict resides in his submissive nature, which allows other people to identify him as a victim and subsequently take advantage of him.

Dr William ‘Bill’ Harford (Tom Cruise) in Eyes Wide Shut, is a respected man in New York’s high society, known to be the person to turn to when complete discretion is required. When treating undressed female patients, he understands the need to make them feel comfortable in his presence, and that he must not abuse that trust.

Bill and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), attend a lavish party hosted by one of his patients.  Whilst an old Hungarian lothario dances with Mrs Harford and propositions her, Bill is tempted with an offer made by two young models’ to “go where the rainbow ends”. In an argument after the party, Bill learns that Alice once vividly fantasized about a naval officer at a time when the two were making plans for their future.

Bill’s inner conflict is that he’s too ingrained in the conventions of a respectable man, so he equates admittance to desiring other women to infidelity. Alice’s admission propels him on an exploration to surrender to his fantasies and act upon them for one night. The outer conflict revolves around the potentially grave repercussions if he forges ahead with his sexual machinations.

Mulholland Drive’s Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is a focused young actress determined to make it in Hollywood. She has everything set in place for her to succeed – the accolade of having won a jitterbug competition, precocious acting talent and having her aunt’s place to stay at. When moving into her temporary home, she find’s Rita (Laura Harring) hiding there, a woman who has no recollection of who she is.

Luckily, Betty knows herself well and feels empowered enough to proactively help her. The outer conflict lies in the two trying to solve the mystery of who Rita really is and how she got there. Unbeknownst to Betty, her inner conflicts reveal themselves to be those of guilt, disenchantment with the false promise of success, inadequacy, envy and unreciprocated love. There’s no better setting for this than Hollywood.


The Cast of Supporting Characters

A convention of the mystery film is to have a considerable-sized cast of supporting characters. This supplies the protagonist with plenty of opportunities to interact with others and to investigate many potential threads to the source of the mystery.

These scenes of brief interactions have to be memorable in order for the viewer to still suspect those characters in the back of their mind, which works to intensify a mood and build anticipation. Supporting characters may seem like apparitions, or functions of the mystery, who serve to spiral the protagonists towards their emotional truths.

The supporting characters are gifted with striking names, such as Eyes Wide Shut’s Nick Nightingale, who discloses only a password for a mysterious party to Bill. And in Mulholland Drive, there’s The Cowboy, who even directly addresses the audience and implores them to retrace their steps and follow the clues.


Well stop for a little second.  And think about it.  Can you do that for me?

Magritte once said, “An object is not so attached to its name that one cannot find for it another one which is more suitable”. The mystery film often suggests our perception of the world can be ordered differently. This can be achieved as easily as merely calling a vice “fun”.


Undermining Character Assumptions

In the quest to resolve their outer conflicts, the protagonists find that their original assumptions about themselves are undermined. In Eyes Wide Shut, Bill realizes that his high status, respectability, and money acquired through banality, can be utilized to explore the sordid and the bizarre. This is shown when he produces his medical board card to the owner of Rainbow Fashion in the early hours in order to purchase an expensive gown and mask for the mysterious party.


You are very, very sure of yourself, aren’t you!

In Mulholland Drive, Betty undermines her original assumptions about herself when she attends an audition; playing the part completely different to the previous time she rehearsed her lines with Rita. This indicates that Betty isn’t as sure of her own identity as she first appeared to be.

When The Tenant’s Trelkovsky tries to barter down the figure of his deposit with his landlord, he cites the distance of the toilet from the apartment as a problem in case he was to ever get ill. He assures the landlord he never does, though later in the film, he succumbs to illness. The undermining of assumptions precipitates visible transformations in the protagonists’ appearances and demeanors, enabling the viewer to measure how much the mystery has consumed them and occupied the recesses of their minds.


Society: A Cult-Like Entity

The mystery film often depicts society as a cult-like entity. Whilst attempting to extract definitive answers from the mystery, the protagonist notices their society’s practices to be nothing more than mere pretenses. When one of Trelkovsky’s neighbors arrives at his door with a petition aiming to evict an impoverished mother and her child, he refuses to sign it. The neighbor chastises him for being selfish and not supporting the supposedly harmonious community, when in truth, she is urging him to join in on that community’s persecution of two helpless victims.

Betty resides in Hollywood, a town whose industry takes pride in its skill to manufacture facades and tell the most convincing, entertaining lies. Everyone’s an actor and a storyteller in Hollywood. However, when a director’s power over his own film and bank account is completely taken away, it becomes apparent in Mulholland Drive, that an individual’s power, unless backed by money and nepotism, is redundant and fleeting.  

Eyes Wide Shut tells a story of a society afraid of candor with regards to their true nature and inner desires. When Bill finally gets into the mysterious party, everyone is wearing a mask. They opt for anonymity, because otherwise, they would be ashamed to be seen in attendance. Setting the film during Christmastime allows the mundanity of life to be glossed over with decorations and garish lights. The over-lit locations help maintain the illusion of transparency and virtue in high society.


Other Mystery Methods: Props, Transformation, Revelation

Other effective methods of the mystery film are the application of red curtains, smoke and bandages to aid the idea of concealment, and mirrors to pose questions on identity. Death frequently features, playing the part of life’s absolute and most well-kept secret.

Any antagonistic forces encountered by the protagonist are there to obstruct them from obtaining quick and easy answers, thus forcing them to search deeper within their world and themselves. Ultimately, as the protagonist progresses through the mystery world, they will transform in order to get to those emotional truths.

For a mystery to remain a mystery, it must never be fully revealed. This may be the reason to the full circle nature of these films, with their conclusions arriving at a point similar to which their stories began. The protagonist may have come to a major revelation, but the manifold mysteries of life will inevitably leave them in limbo. An ambiguous ending is only fitting.


What kind of fucking charade ends with somebody turning up dead?

Life, Bill. Life.