What Makes a Whodunit Rewatchable?

by Paul Deeter

Spoilers, obviously.

When I was about 12 or 13 years old I remember my father bringing home a Blockbuster rental DVD copy of the 2003 film Identity on DVD. The film was a pretty solid R-rating, and I remember at the time I was pretty strictly permitted to sticking with PG-13 and under films. So it was maybe when I got to the age 16 when I finally did watch it. But it was years before I'd gained interest in the feature, I remember seeing advertisements and trailers for it that intrigued my younger self. As any teenager would, I wanted to watch mature films, but in my case, (at least normally) the appeal of some of these adult-oriented films was less the desire to see more violence or S&M and more related to me wanting to keep up with the latest and greatest releases. Therefore, years before I was allowed to see the movie Identity I still had to know about it. So (stupidly) I asked my mom to describe the film for me, twist and all! The John Cusack film based on And Then There Were None by the great Agatha Christie was about a slew of murders one after another plaguing a shady ensemble of characters set, entirely in a hotel. She told me everything that happens in the pretty solid James Mangold film, all the way until the shock twist ending: the young boy in the film, Timmy, was the murderer the whole time! While some have found this ending to be ridiculous, and let's be honest it was, the film was pretty successful making audiences gasp at its unexpected conclusion. And young teenage me was excited to know what all the buzz was about. But just like the feeling of having a great book twist spoiled for you, the feeling only lasted briefly and I'd hoped when I eventually watched the film that I'd forgotten the big reveal. Well that didn't happen. So I finally saw Identity and was like, eh. Saw that coming.

Identity is the perfect example of a movie that relies on a twist to keep audiences guessing, glued to their TVs or theater seats, or encouraging their friends and family to buy tickets. It's the appeal of M. Night Shyamalan's early films. He started as a director guaranteed to offer twists for his viewers, something not always guaranteed in horror films and thrillers. The suspense came in knowing there would be scares with the overall goal to be surprised by the inevitable twist. But I wouldn't use the following definition to sum up the kind of movies that Shyamalan makes. The typical guaranteed film or book genre for a twist ending is considered the 'whodunit'. The whodunit is described by Wikipedia as:

is a complex, plot-driven variety of a detective story in which the puzzle regarding who committed the crime is the main focus. The reader or viewer is provided with the clues from which the identity of the perpetrator may be deduced before the story provides the revelation itself at its climax.

Identity (2003)

There's a pretty nail-on-the-head definition of a genre that has cranked out decades of film and even longer amounts of books. The whodunit is in another way, a page-turner for literary definition. You keep going through it page after page because you just. can't. stop. As far as movies go you're not turning pages obviously, but you're not gonna pause it or leave the theater if you're hooked. But when you've read through an entire book and learned its final twist, are you going to pick up that book again? Having known how it ends? And what about with movies? It may be a bigger commitment to read a whole 300-400 page novel, it certainly takes longer for the average reader to get through a book than a movie. But I believe there's a similar question there, because watching a movie is still a commitment, a commitment of time and sometimes money.

For a movie to be rewatchable, it can do a few things. Some people including myself, watch comedies that cause us so much laughter we miss some of the jokes between the sound of our own chuckles. Having seen Borat with my father as a teenager we could barely speak without wheezing after the film, so you know I had to go again. Then there's the horror genre, and this is something I've actually covered in a previous article: Can movies scare us twice? in which I discuss the concept of being shocked or scared by a movie. A scary movie is a bit different than a twisty-thriller, but knowing the jump-scares ahead of time certainly can cause a little less interest in a rewatch. So there's the point I'm kind of circling around: what makes a whodunit rewatchable? While I've covered the fact that horror films use jump-scares to surprise us, whodunit films rely almost entirely on the one surprise they have in store: the twist. But instead of calling this article "Can Whodunits Surprise us Twice?", because that's silly, I challenge readers as to what elements guide us into revisiting these films?

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999)

I'm a definitive movie buff, so a lot of my interest in rewatching films is not just in the enjoyment of the return, but sometimes it involves introducing other people to watch with me. No movie fan can deny the pleasure of showing one of their friends or significant others their favorite movie. It's like sharing a piece of your heart in a way, something that makes you happy, or scared for that matter. I myself am guilty of watching someone watching a movie, eyeing my friends so I know they're paying attention. But it does take a bit more for me to go back into a theater to return to a film, and even sometimes put a movie back in the disc player. I watch a majority of films by myself, so my occasional return viewing is more related to if I feel the film merits a second watch. So let's take a movie like Knives Out and talk about what makes it entertaining. A good thriller does not just rely on plot-pointing the start-to-finish of the story, but also having fun with the ride. Knives Out was successful because it was audaciously funny and incredibly confident. It starred a large A-List cast of actors firing on all calibers for two hours straight. So when we get to the inevitable whodunit ending, we are almost sad the movie has to end. The film follows a murder-mystery story, dropping clues and hints and letting us in on moments of discovery before its conclusion. That being said, there's not a lot of exposition or filler, so the time spent with the movie is humorous and so much fun that you kind of forget you're waiting for a twist. As I mentioned before, the whodunit genre is different from the horror genre because it's cards are revealed at the end, and the whole film is built around that mystery. So Knives Out decided in its making, that it was a comedy. And now there are two confirmed sequels. Imagine that?

Another way a whodunit can attract returning viewers is by engrossing us in a story worth-retelling. A good example of this is the film Se7en by David Fincher. The movie shocked audiences with its twist ending and some major fake-outs prior, but kept us squirming the whole time with some phenomenal and disturbing content. If you're a sick puppy like me, movies like Se7en or more recently Shutter Island, one of Scorsese's less successful genre flicks, beg to bring us back for more depravity. These movies work in horror on top of gore to make audiences engaged, again distracting us from the fact that there's going to be a big twist ending. Comedies like Sherlock Holmes do it like Knives Out with humor and occasional action, it just requires a mix-up to the genre. And perhaps most hilariously, the 1985 film adaptation Clue gave audiences the weirdest reason of all to come back: three alternative endings. And not alternative like special features this was too early for that. Returnable like you might pay to see a conclusion completely different than the one your friends saw at another neighborhood's theater. A wild experiment, but not unsuccessful, the film is considered a cult classic to this day.

"Won't you join us a third time?" asks Tim Curry in Clue (1985)

While a whodunit novel by definition focuses on the climax and its major revelation over all, movies need to keep things interesting off the page. Visual narrative does a lot more for a story on the big-screen, while having less time to tell it's story. A blessing and a curse. The blessing is the ability to bring a level of action and performance and direction the book cannot. The curse is not just sticking the landing, but making the journey worthwhile. And while we may look back fondly on a mystery film from the 80s, that same film may not be worth going back to today. A good film is always worth another trip, but a good whodunnit has to qualify as a product fleshed out more than a reveal of its cards. And with films like Knives Out inspiring two sequels this year, we can tell that audiences are ready to return to our characters again and again. Knives Out works as a comedy, action whodunit, and that leaves the question: why audiences loved it?

It's no mystery.

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