Movie Comment – The Death of the Whodunit?
After watching the recently released film Prisoners, an incredibly suspenseful kidnap mystery, I could not help but long for a time when these types of stories were a rule of mainstream American film rather than an exception. While the popularity of thrilling “airport novels” is still derided by literary highbrows, and on network television police procedurals still rule the ratings, the mystery has been fading from the movie theater. Gone are the 1990s, when movies regularly found huge box office success by having leading men like Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, or Harrison Ford follow a string of clues to a find a killer, unveil a bureaucratic conspiracy, or prevent a geopolitical disaster. In this new decade, whether it is an Oscar-nominated spy versus spy mole-hunt (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, 2011), an acclaimed courtroom drama (The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011), a gritty, macho neo-noir (Broken City, 2013), or a star-studded political conspiracy (Ides of March, 2011 ), the mystery has simply failed to draw the attention and success it could take for granted during the days when writers like John Grisham and Tom Clancy were at their peak in popularity.
In the current Hollywood roster, adaptations based on works by popular authors in the mystery genre often rely on a heavy action element to justify their existence in a medium dominated by CGI-spectaculars. Both James Patterson’s Alex Cross (2012) and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (2012) followed this model but still generated less than $100 million in box office revenue, the traditional mark for a Hollywood hit. If fact, even with the expanded fistfights and shoot-outs, Alex Cross could not recoup its low Hollywood budget of $35 million even when incorporating the international market, a far cry from when Morgan Freeman played the same character in 2001’s Along Came A Spider and did little else besides ask questions and have “Aha” moments to the tune of $105 million in worldwide box office. One fictional character who did prosper with a revised fusion of action and mystery was the most famous detective of all, Sherlock Holmes himself . Portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in these 2009 and 2011 releases, the iconic sleuth deduced his way through swashbuckling brawls and chases the scale of which rivaled anything in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. The seamless integration of mystery into a larger adventure appeared so effortless for director Guy Ritchie, one could say of him that it almost seemed elem… second nature.
Now, in regards to the pure mystery, could a whodunit still intrigue the public enough to show up in mass to learn the answer? If any movie seemed to embody a “yes” to that question, it was the American version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Every aspect of the film appeared to prophesize success. It had a built-in audience from the mega-selling trilogy of Scandinavian thrillers by Steig Larsson. It had an acclaimed director, David Fincher, who made his name in the psychological thriller genre with the Academy Award-winning Se7en (1997) and, later returned to similar ground with the true story of Zodiac (2007). The size of the marketing budget for Girl could compete with that of many blockbusters and the advertising made ample use of actor Daniel Craig during a 007 drought and Roony Mara, who’s eerie physicality in her performance as Lisbeth Salander was already inspiring whispers of “Oscar.” After the duration of its domestic run, and all the dollars were all tallied, the film was a quantifiable hit, earning just north of the domestic hit marker at $102 million dollars. But this success was still too small to be considered a worthwhile return on a substantial investment. The grosses were far below studio hopes considering it was made on a budget of $90 million (not even including marketing). Ultimately, it was considered a financial disappointment. Development on the other installments of the trilogy were shelved, each sequel waiting for an adaptation that would likely never occur.
There is one bright example, however, of a true to form mystery, which was successful in this decade without qualification: Martin Scorsese’s almost “locked-room”-style Shutter Island (2011). Set in the 1950s, the film follows an emotionally tormented police detective, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he investigates the disappearance of a mental ward patient on an isolated island. The detective gradually realizes that the appearances of this mental ward are, of coarse, not the reality and that the missing patient is just a single piece to a much more maddening puzzle. Proving the everlasting reverence of director Martin Scorsese and the reliable box office draw of Leonardo DiCaprio, one of Hollywood’s last “sure bet” movie stars, Shutter Island reached $128 million in the United States. At last, a true hit mystery film.
But could this just be one of the last breaths of dying genre? Probably not. While popular mystery films such as Shutter Island are rare, it is never for a lack of Hollywood trying. Like Westerns, it seems you can always count on a few high profile productions cropping up on occasion when the studios decide it is time again to test if audiences are ready embrace the format. Additionally, there are always enough moderate successes, such as The Call (2013), which made $51 million on a budget of only $13 million, and Unknown (2011), which made $63 million on a budget of $30 million, to ensure that fans of the genre will always have a decent serving of intrigue, suspense and one person’s dogged search for the truth. The mystery never really dies. Sometimes it just goes missing and waits to be found.