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The Thrill Is Gone 

Why today's mysteries fail to deliver

In the new psychological thriller Secret Window, Johnny Depp plays a successful author who's trying to figure out why a Mississippi hayseed (John Turturro) keeps terrorizing him. In the current drama Twisted, Ashley Judd stars as a detective trying to uncover who's killing all her former lovers.

The mystery of both these films -- indeed, the mystery of most thrillers released these days -- turns out to be the same: The mystery is why Hollywood seems unable to produce a thriller that actually keeps discerning audiences guessing until the end.

Back in the 30s and 40s, Hollywood used to churn out so many generic Westerns, most of a "B" nature, that only the most devoted film fan would be able to differentiate between all of them. Over the last couple of decades, the same can be said of thrillers. Quick, can you denote the differences between Deceived, Deception, Shattered, Betrayed and other films with equally swappable titles?

Clearly one of the most popular of all film genres -- "I like comedies and thrillers" is a common answer found everywhere from official movie polls to self-profiles on matchmaking sites -- this one has probably endured because it offers a killer combo. A good one not only makes audiences think, it also perches them on the edge of their seats, a one-two punch that keeps both the heart and the head racing.

Yet where are all the "good" ones? Are today's thrillers largely ineffectual because they're so poorly made, or is it because audiences are more aware of the genre's tricks and are therefore harder to fool?

I suspect it's a combination of both. Twisted, for example, is simply a poorly scripted picture sabotaged by wretched plotting and stock characters -- this movie couldn't have been saved even if Martha Stewart appeared in the waning seconds to reveal she was the murderer. Secret Window is similarly empty, an adaptation of a Stephen King novella that probably took the author 10 minutes, tops, to write.

But then there's the case of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, an exceedingly well-crafted picture that earned two Oscars and turned up on scores of 10 Best lists. For all its prestige, the mystery angle knocked it down a peg for me -- surely I wasn't the only person who thought the identity of the killer was so obvious that it distracted from the rest of the movie?

Mystic River (and, for that matter, Twisted and Secret Window) exemplifies the current problem running through most thrillers: The villain almost invariably turns out to be the last person we should suspect -- only, since we anticipate such a "shocking" plot twist, it's often actually the first person who comes to mind. This isn't exactly a new development -- even lovable James Stewart was once revealed to be the killer, in 1936's After the Thin Man -- but in today's Hollywood, it often seems to be the only way to go.

In Sam Raimi's The Gift (2000), the primary suspects are supposed to be Keanu Reeves' redneck wife beater and Giovanni Ribisi's twitchy nutjob. But my, isn't Greg Kinnear playing such a sensitive, well-mannered gentleman? In Carl Franklin's High Crimes (2002), all these nasty military men are claiming that lawyer Ashley Judd's husband (Jim Caviezel), a former US soldier, slaughtered innocent peasants in a Central American village, but she and fellow attorney Morgan Freeman believe he's innocent. After all, isn't he such a loving, considerate sweetheart of a spouse?

There are a few exceptions, of course, a handful of thrillers that have caught me off guard. The Usual Suspects (1995) and Presumed Innocent (1990) were both so expertly constructed that I was too busy reveling in their merits to even wrap my mind around the concept of the least likely suspect. On the other hand, there's the unusual case of the sorry Sharon Stone vehicle Sliver (1993), featuring a mystery so inconsequential that it didn't matter whodunit: The movie was shot with William Baldwin as the killer, then its finale was reshot -- and the movie was released -- with Tom Berenger as the bad guy. No one cared either way, least of all the audience.

The key to constructing a solid thriller for today's moviegoers might actually rest in the blueprint popularized by the Columbo TV series. Each episode began with the identity of the killer fully exposed as he or she carried out his diabolical scheme. The appeal of that program, then, wasn't in sorting through red herrings but rather in watching Peter Falk's disheveled detective methodically piece together the clues and nail the culprit. Columbo never gave us a chance to exert any mental superiority because it exposed the mystery immediately, and rather than be distracted by guessing games, we were able to immerse ourselves in the actual police procedural.

Not coincidentally, two of the best thrillers of the past 15 years have functioned along the same lines as Columbo. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) made it clear early on that Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) was the serial killer at large, thus allowing the focus of that film to be Clarice Starling's (Jodie Foster) fascinating quid pro quo sessions with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) that enabled her to track down Buffalo Bill. Similarly, in Seven (1995), we learn midway through the movie that the psychopath is a man known only as John Doe (Kevin Spacey), a revelation that then takes us in a different direction as we're plunged (and how!) into the blow-by-blow details of his impending final murder.

Hollywood's best bet, then, might be to produce mysteries that actually contain no mystery, with the writers spending less time trying to come up with a now-cliched "gotcha!" final twist, and focusing more on giving us stories and characters that compel. Still, if they insist on providing us with whodunits, then just once, I'd like for the killer to be the most loathsome suspect with the most obvious motive and the easiest access to the victim. Now that would be a surprise.

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