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Spotlight: My problems with some modern-day thrillers

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mattiasflgrtll6's Avatar
The truth is in here
For a long time, I've loved to watch a very well-crafted, exciting suspenseful thriller. Especially if there's an element of mystery involved. What better way to get involved in a movie than waiting in cold sweat for what's going to happen next?

But lately, I've noticed some things in newer thrillers that bother me. Does this mean that old thrillers are automatically perfect or that all modern thrillers suck? Of course not. But these are just some recurring things that continue to bother me:

1. The plot is all over the place. Mainly when it comes to The Girl On The Train, The Snowman and Misconduct, there's a great idea involved. But they try to cram in too much. There are so many subplots and unneccessary elements that the films wind up feeling overcrowded, and would benefit from being much more focused, or handled by a writer who knows how to balance several plots and make them equally serve their purpose. I know with The Snowman there were several production problems, but that still doesn't make the issues go away.

2. Not enough character building. As we all know, the best movies contain the most memorable characters. Even 2001 which is more visually driven than dialogue-driven, we have HAL, we have Dave and we have Frank. You remember their presence. In The Girl On The Train, I struggled to care about a single character other than Rachel. Allison Janney was annoying, and the other girls in focus were generic. Justin Theroux is presented as a bad guy, but is given very little focus. Edgar Ramírez' role was just silly. I will not think back fondly of these characters for years, or even days after seeing the movie.

3. Bad plot twists. God, I'm tired of bad thriller plot twists. Okay, here's what makes for a good plot twist: It either is simple, yet so effective and excellently executed, or it catches you offguard, but it still makes sense at the same time. A BAD plot twist is predictable with a predictable execution, or it tries to "wow" you with how unexpected it is, but it doesn't make sense from what we've seen and feels thrown in just for shock. One movie I saw uses both these type of plot twists:
WARNING: spoilers below
In Misconduct, we are led to believe Al Pacino is a guy you can trust, but it's so ridiculously obvious early on he's a fishy type, and when he's revealed to be a villain it's not only very expected, but also recycles the endings of The Recruit and Righteous Kill. In The Recruit, it was actually kinda surprising. I'll admit, I didn't totally expect that. In Righteous Kill, it could only really be him, and in this movie I knew too soon it was gonna be him, but hoped they would subvert my expectations. They didn't. And then there's the shock of a character being vicious that you didn't expect, but it's completely thrown in just for shock, and makes the story much more confusing.


And don't even get me started on "It was YOU who was the killer!"...

4. Too slow build-up. People complain about movies being too fast nowadays, but the opposite sometimes applies as well. Sometimes you are just waiting for a movie to go somewhere for so long that you start checking your watch after a while. A smart thriller usually offers some breadcrumbs or good character development to keep your interest piquing. Hangman had neither of those things, so I was essentially watching a movie that pretended to be "building" up tension when it really just dragged on hoping the audience would be patient enough to stick out for the "amazing" conclusion thereafter.

Thankfully, this does not encompass all newer thrillers, and recently I saw the very well-crafted The Gift, which quite possibly reinvented the stalker genre. But the stuff I brought up are things I wish some directors and writers would take a few notes off and improve upon.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
I think it's give or take as there are a lot of good modern thrillers as well as a lot of not so good older thrillers as well. When you say the "It was YOU who was the killer!" can you name modern movies that do this?

Cause this feels like an older thing I've seen, like in Perry Mason for example.



mattiasflgrtll6's Avatar
The truth is in here
Identity
The Machinist
Shutter Island (It's probably executed the best here though)
Passion

With this I mean that the main character investigating the murder or in the least something fishy turns out to be the actual murderer.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
Okay thanks. So you are saying you hate mystery thrillers where you don't know who the killer is until later on?



Maybe he's saying he hates predictable twists. I guessed the twist in Shutter Island in the first ten minutes and sat there the rest of the film desperately hoping I was wrong and it wasn't that tired old cliche yet again.
It was.



I don't think he's saying he hates mysteries where you don't know how the killer is until later, because that's almost literally every mystery ever. He's saying too many are telegraphed.

Re: Shutter Island. Yeah, I literally guessed the twist halfway through the first trailer. I'm still kinda confused about that movie. It seems like it was made 15-20 years too late.



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Well I think the 'what' of the twist in Shutter Island was predictable, but the 'why' was a total surprise to me, as I didn't know the why behind the twist, and that was refreshing to me. So even though the idea of the twist was predictable, the specifics of why, were not in my opinion.

The twist to Shutter Island is similar to the twist in The Cabinet or Dr. Caligari, so even older movies have used similar twists as well.



The fact that older movies did it is precisely the point. It's not the structure of the twist that's the problem, it's the predictability. What was novel or then is predictable now, specifically because older movies did it.

So a twist can be good in 1920 when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made, but bad in 2010 by the time Shutter Island comes along because there's 90 years between the two, during which our collective ability to anticipate these twists has dramatically improved, through sheer repetition.



I recently watched a 70s thriller called Taking Pelham 123 and while there was a theme of questioning how the bad guys were gonna get away with their crime the surprises for me were the payoffs for certain reacurring aspects in the film both of which im not sure could really be called twists by definitions but clever payoffs I personally didnt see coming and left me smilling.

If youve seen it what did you think of Rabid Dogs?



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
The fact that older movies did it is precisely the point. It's not the structure of the twist that's the problem, it's the predictability. What was novel or then is predictable now, specifically because older movies did it.

So a twist can be good in 1920 when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made, but bad in 2010 by the time Shutter Island comes along because there's 90 years between the two, during which our collective ability to anticipate these twists has dramatically improved, through sheer repetition.
I saw the twist coming for Shutter Island, but did not see it coming for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, even though I saw the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari afterwards.

I think it's because Shutter Island foreshadowed the twist beforehand, where as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari kept it a complete surprise. That's the problem with foreshadowing is that a twist can not be a total surprise if you use it.

However, do you think that even though sometimes you can see the twist coming that the movie was still good in the end?

I watched The Skin I Live In and thought it was really good, even though I saw the twist coming. It was foreshadowed. I kind of wish it wasn't foreshadowed but even though I saw it coming, I was hoping that what I saw coming would be the twist, cause if it was, I thought it would have been really good.

So do you ever watch a movie where the twist is foreshadowed and you see it coming, but you are hoping that you are right, cause it would make for a really good movie, if you were right?

So if you see a twist coming and you think it's good, it doesn't ruin the movie, it just delivers what you were hoping for. That's good, isn't it?



Oh, sure. Sometimes a movie is already good and the twist just adds to it; I think The Sixth Sense is like that. Take the twist out entirely and it's not a cultural phenomenon, but it's still a very good film.

I think it's more that most films with huge twists are completely build around them, and make that moment of surprise the focal point of the film, and just don't work if it doesn't shock you. It's really hard, I think, to make a film with a big surprise that stands up without it or doesn't have to compromise other things in service of it.

There are definitely times where a twist is good, but I guess it, and I get some enjoyment out of feeling smart enough to figure it out, but in those cases it's hard to tell if that enjoyment is coming from the movie, rather than just flattering myself.

And you're absolutely right that twists cannot be total surprises; if they are, they probably weren't "fair." All good surprises in stories need to a) not be guessed but b) seem obvious in retrospect. That's the balancing act.



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Is possible to have a twist be a total surprise, without foreshadowing and still have it be fair though? For example, in The Skin I Live In, the reason why I saw the twist coming, is because when they show a flashback, the show a certain characters face before the flashback happens, indicating that it was that person who was having the flashback. Me seeing who's flashback it was caused me to guess the twist.

But all they had to do, to have it be a complete shocking surprise, was to show the flashback, without assigning that character to it. But showing the character's face before the flashback, the twist is foreshadowed, or at least I saw it coming just because of that. It was a simple fix I would think, yet the director chose to foreshadow it, instead of making it a complete surprise. Well... I might still have predicted it but it would have been much more hard to predict if they hadn't shown the character's face, indicating that it was her flashback.

So why did the director chose to make it easier to predict in that case? Did he feel it may not have been fair if he hadn't?



I think I answered that here:

twists cannot be total surprises; if they are, they probably weren't "fair." All good surprises in stories need to a) not be guessed but b) seem obvious in retrospect. That's the balancing act.
I haven't seen The Skin I Live In, so I can't answer any questions about the director's motivation. But people's minds work very differently and it's pretty common that some people are blindsided by twists that others notice easily, and that those roles can be completely flipped with another film.

Technically, any foreshadowing at all makes it "easier to predict," and it's impossible to have twists that nobody guesses, even if you only foreshadow them slightly.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
And some movies people have gotten the twist to, where as even after I am done the movie, I still don't know what happened and other people had to explain it to me. Oldboy (2003) was like that for me, as I didn't even get the twist when it was revealed and could have used more foreshadowing, or something to buy into it, as I saw it.

Basically in the movie, two characters were actually in fact, the same character, but the movie hardly does anything to reveal it, and I didn't understand that, even after the movie was over.



And some movies people have gotten the twist to, where as even after I am done the movie, I still don't know what happened and other people had to explain it to me. Oldboy (2003) was like that for me, as I didn't even get the twist when it was revealed and could have used more foreshadowing, or something to buy into it, as I saw it.

Basically in the movie, two characters were actually in fact, the same character, but the movie hardly does anything to reveal it, and I didn't understand that, even after the movie was over.
Do you mean the sexy twist?



I have always loved mystery thrillers and think the problem with some of the modern ones are very well articulated by mattias - I totally agree. The character development is lackluster, the build up is slow, the plot and the payoff are done more for flash than substance. I find unfortunately this laziness of craft becoming more.and more common in mysteries and other genres as well- Three Billboards ( is it really a mystery?) being a prime example , where the characters actions just became preposterous to me.

The taking of Pelham 123 is a great example of a successful mystery thriller, with the hilarious and talented Walter Matthau 's role being payoff enough to watch and rewatch- just to hear (spoiler ahead) the thief sneeze and the expression on Walter's face as he pokes his head back in the door.

These type of touches make a film engaging - wry humor, strongly defined. characters (and that includes the good and bad guys , the stars and the minor roles) , a nice interplay between characters and a plot that keeps you guessing. Think of a movie like the Sting - not quite a mystery except for the trick the director plays on the audience, revealed in great gesture at the end. How can you not enjoy it?! Besides the chemistry of two stars at their magnetic best, the plot, the costumes, the pacing and music and subtle sub stories- all were put together as intricately and well balanced as a finely jewelled watch.

I recently watched a mystery thriller called Eyewitness, from 1981. Not what I would call more than a B movie ( or even a C+ movie lol) but it still was a good enough thriller to stay with. Of course having stars like Chris Plummer, Morgan Freeman, Sigourney, Weaver, etc. made sure the characters were ones that kept your eyes in the screen. But there were other good touches too- the fact that I as a viewer kept switching allegiances to all of the characters as the plot ensued. The mystery was more than wondering who was the good guy or the bad guy, more than just about why there'd been a murder. And their were a few nice ironic subplot subtleties - eg (spoiler again) the cop whose retirement is imminent and hopes he can finish his 20 without having to kill someone- do esn't work out that way. tho.

And many of the mystery thriller movies Harrison Ford made - Presumed Innocent, What Lies Beneath- were strong enough on their own. But one like Witness transcended the genre- so much care for the craft and consideration for the audience was taken by the director, photographer, screenwriter and the actors- it became imho a timeless classic movie all around- in any genre- though it can easily be thought of as a mystery- thriller.

I do find true gems of movies made in recent years, but the days are gone when I can say- oh boy - a new mystery - theiy're always good. Because they aren't always. Glad to know we still have some older films that are so substantial, that even when you know the end , you like seeing them again- just to relish Audrey finding out Cary's true name



@mattiasflgrtll6 The plot is all over the place. Mainly when it comes to The Girl On The Train, The Snowman and Misconduct, there's a great idea involved. But they try to cram in too much. There are so many subplots and unneccessary elements that the films wind up feeling overcrowded, and would benefit from being much more focused, or handled by a writer who knows how to balance several plots and make them equally serve their purpose. I know with The Snowman there were several production problems, but that still doesn't make the issues go away.

Oh how true about The Snowman and the others you listed. Convoluted.. over plotted. Not simple plotting like in older thrillers. I reviewed one such convoluted, over plotted movie a while ago...The Mother. Wow I had no idea what was happening from go to woe.



Movie Forums Squirrel Jumper
A thriller I saw recently was 8MM (1999). Now in that movie, I saw the twist coming. Well not sure if it is a twist but a dramatic plot turn, which I will give away. But I was hoping I was right, and this is a case where you want to be right about predicting it:

SPOILER WARNING

It turns out that the snuff film was real.

But you want it to be real, otherwise it might seem anticlimatic to find out that the snuff film was fake, and that it was a no big deal of a case. So I think this is a case, where you predict the twist in advance, and you want it to turn out that way. Unless I'm wrong?



mattiasflgrtll6's Avatar
The truth is in here
You're right, that's a good example. Snuff film is such a scary concept by itself that if it turned out any different you would just go "Huh. Well, okay then." The movie basically builds on the fear of a long-time myth there's no concrete evidence of and delivers.