Viewer: Common Elements in Mysteries and Thrillers

As a computer science major, I’m a huge fan of The Social Network. It’s a fascinating film that captures the dramatic reality of power and money through elements like friendship, betrayal, and deception. But when I recommended the movie to my girlfriend, I was slightly bothered by her choice to avoid the film solely because it’s “too dimly lit”. However, after watching another one of David Fincher’s films, Zodiac, I’ve come to notice that a lot of his films are in fact ‘dimly lit’ – and that too, for a good reason. The genre of thrillers and film noir rely heavily on a sharp contrast between high-key and low-key lighting in order to convey an intense or dramatic feeling. Mysteries keep a lot of its subject matter in the dark, and therefore use things like shadows to depict secrecy or the unknown. These shadows are created with small, intense lighting at different angles to either lengthen or shorten the area taken up by the shadows. Although I don’t agree with her decision to not watch a movie for its lighting, I do think this sort of dimmer lighting is a tool used by directors in mystery and thriller films to create an artificial feeling of intensity and to keep the audience in a constant state of suspense/fear. This correlation definitely explains her distaste for other mystery/thriller movies that I love, like The Silence of the Lambs and Shutter Island.

A prominent theme in this film (and in the crime/mystery genre) is obsession – specifically obsession to the extent of self-defeat. Common examples of this sort of obsession is apparent in some of the other popular David Fincher films like Seven, Gone Girl, and Fight Club. Seven involves a psychopath who is obsessed with the seven deadly sins (sloth, pride, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath, and jealousy). Gone Girl is one of my favorite movies and it delves into obsession as well. In that film, Amy Dunne is obsessed with the concept of true love and being romantic, and that eventually leads to her own and her relationship’s demise. In Fight Club, the characters are constantly obsessed with the idea of confronting mortality and testing their limits. Similarly, in Zodiac, Graysmith obsesses over the case of the Zodiac killer and spends over twenty-two years trying to find their true identity. His submersion in the case eventually lost him his job, his wife, and many of his friends, which is a common result of obsession in a lot of the mystery and thriller films.

1 comment
  1. One of my favorite aspects of film is being able to explore a director’s other works and notice similarities in the actors, lighting, filming, etc. It’s refreshing to enjoy a movie, find another one by the same director, and be able to experience an entirely new story that’s told through a framework that’s similar to the one you initially enjoyed. Understandably, like in the case of your girlfriend, the opposite situation can also occur

    I too enjoyed the use of lighting (and rain) to tell the story of Zodiac. Using lighting/weather/positioning (in/outdoors) is a great way to lend a physical framing to which characters know (or don’t know) certain information, and it certainly adds a degree of suspense.

    I also dwelled a bit on the topic of obsession with this movie. It was interesting to me to see that the killer effectively won – in other words, the obsessions of the various protagonist characters in the movie ends up being their undoing. Several lose their jobs or quit. The main protagonist in the movie is the most successful, succeeding in writing a book, but at the expense of alienating his wife, children, coworkers, and friends in the process. The book’s success saves him from financial ruin, but he also forfeits his job as a cartoonist in order to continue his research.

    This is an interesting film because while we never hear from the killer face-to-face, it’s obvious through the struggles of the protagonists that he essentially ‘won’.

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