Top 5: Detective Mysteries

With the highly anticipated release of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners this Friday, we here at Reel Reactions thought it would be the perfect time to reflect on some of our favorite detective stories. Let’s face it, everyone loves a good mystery; be it for the shady characters, the moody lightening, or the head spinning fun of guessing who-did-it, detective stories have always had a widespread significance in our culture. Beyond pure entertainment, the best detective mysteries function as precise critiques of society, the human psyche, and the evils that humanity is capable of. Sure the actual mystery is extremely important, but a detective story without any sort of social commentary is about as good as a Katherine Heigl rom-com. With these thoughts in mind, we took the time to search through the deluge of detective films from the last fifty plus years to bring you our Top 5 Detective Mysteries. A quick caveat- for this article we aren’t limiting our choices to films that only follow an actual detective but instead are open to any film about the protagonist’s search for the truth or attempt to solve a mystery.


5Brickmovieposter.jpg.) Brick – There are so many great detective movies out there that it was extremely hard to narrow it down to only five choices.  On any given day we could’ve made a case for five or six other movies that could’ve taken this or a higher spot.  Such classics as The Usual Suspects, The Departed, Vertigo, and L.A. Confidential are just as deserving of recognition as these top five but that’s the nature of these kind of lists, you have to make the hard decisions, you have to kill your darlings and choose just five.  While our #5 pick may or may not have been influenced by his unbelievable work on this past week’s Breaking Bad, in the end, Rian Johnson’s Brick stands above the rest.  A neo-Noir film wrapped up in the skin of a high school drama, Brick follows Brendan (a young but still incredible Joseph Gordon Levitt) as he searches for his ex-girlfriend’s murderer and how his investigation sets him at odds with the school crime ring.  Most impressive about the film is Johnson’s almost effortless ability to mold the tropes and themes of classic Noir films around the high school setting.  Brendan is the unequivocal hard-boiled detective whose search rounds up the typical cast of shady drug dealers, vicious delinquents, and even the occasional murderer, it just all happens to be set at high school.  A lesser director would’ve used the concept as nothing but a cheap gimmick but Johnson brilliantly uses noir to comment on the intricacies of teenage relationships, crime, and their skewed perceptions of the world.  It’s a highly effective movie that only gets better as time goes on, and it’s without a doubt one of the best detective movies out there. 


Fargo.jpg4.) Fargo – The Coen Brothers have one of the most distinct and recognizable styles in all of film and early in their careers they put their own unique stamp on the detective movie genre with their 1996 classic Fargo.  Following a hodgepodge of inept criminals and oddball crimes, Fargo is easily the most comedic film on this list but that makes it no less dark or affecting as any of the other films.  The Coen Brothers are at their best when they dig in and find the humor in typically unfunny situations and this unique sensibility is never as proudly displayed as it is in Fargo.  What could’ve be an extremely serious tale of one man’s attempt to make a quick buck by setting up his wife to be kidnapped in order to get the ransom money is instead a jet black comedic critique on the inability of many criminals and just how low people are willing to sink in order to keep up appearances.  It’s a masterfully told story packed with fantastic performances from William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Oscar winner Frances McDormand and is easily one of, it not the best Coen Brothers’ movie yet.


Memento poster.jpg3.) Memento – Years before he reinvented the superhero genre with The Dark Knight Trilogy, Christopher Nolan was best known for his unique crime-thriller Memento.  While many may argue that Memento isn’t really a “detective” film, the story is so entrenched in the themes and style of the genre that it’s impossible not to include it on this list.  Really the only thing keeping Memento from being a tried and true “detective” film is the fact that Guy Pierce’s Leonard isn’t any sort of private detective or cop (though he does work with one, played by a shady Joe Pantoliano).  Beyond that though the film is a classic detective story as Leonard desperately searches for the man that murdered his wife.  However, there is a serious wrench thrown in the gears.  The attackers that left his wife dead also inflicted him with a serious head trauma, leaving him unable to make any new memories.  Obviously this makes his unending search for his wife’s killers difficult, so Leonard is constantly taking pictures and leaving himself notes, even going so far as to tattoo important info onto his body to ensure he never forgets.  While this premise alone makes for an interesting story, what really elevates Memento is its unique structure.  Rather than choose to tell one linear story, Nolan brilliantly intercuts two overlapping stories, one told linearly in black and white and the other colored scenes taking place in reverse chronological order until the two stories finally meet up in the middle.  It’s a crazy and sometimes confusing structure but one that continually rewards close, repeated viewings to the point where you are always picking up on intricate nuances with every recurrent screening.


Chinatownposter1.jpg2.) Chinatown – Widely considered one of the best detective films of the 20th century, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson (in a career best performance) as private detective J.J. Gittes who gets caught up in a web of murder, corruption, and incest in 1930’s Los Angeles after agreeing to expose an adulterer.  If you’ve seen any of Roman Polanski’s films then you know he’s a master class director when it comes to pacing and never is that more evident than in Chinatown.  Placing you firmly in the shoes of Gittes, Polanski knows exactly how much information to slowly confer to the audience over the course of the film.  Like so many of the best detective stories, we only know as much as the main character so we are just as wrapped up and intrigued by the ever expanding web of lies and deceit as the protagonist, so when the truth about the Mulwrays and Cross is finally revealed we are just as devastated, shocked and dumbfounded as Gittes by the horror and repulsiveness of what’s really been going on behind the scenes.  Beyond Polanski’s impeccable pacing, Chinatown also serves as specific critique of Los Angeles as a whole and how it was built on a corrupt foundation that set the tone for the city’s entire history.  It’s an incredibly ambitious and bold theme wrapped in a delightfully simple story, which guarantees the film a top spot on this list.


Seven (movie) poster.jpg1.) Se7en – Arguably David Fincher’s finest hours, Se7en follows a soon-to-be-retired veteran cop and the rookie that’ll soon be replacing him (the ever fantastic Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) as they hunt down a vicious killer whose victims represent each of the Seven Deadly Sins.  While the log line may sound pretty basic, what truly sets this film apart from the pack is the creativity Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker showed through their restraint.  A lesser creative team would’ve gone the easy route, showing every second of every sadistic killing, but Fincher brilliantly circumvents this pitfall by continually leaving these horrendous acts up to the audience’s imagination.  Because we are firmly observing from the detectives’ points of view we are never privy to the actual murders but only their aftermaths, which surprisingly makes it oh so much worse.  Fincher and Walker brilliantly give you just enough pieces of the puzzle for your imagination to start running wild with savage and brutal scenarios, much worse than anything that could be depicted on screen.  Outside of this one aspect though, Se7en also functions as an incredible story about the depravity that humanity is capable of and how far these detectives must venture into the depths of sadism in order to catch their killer.  It’s a bleak, relentless film that stays with you long after the credits roll (and that nasty twist of a finale) and it’s a shoe in for our favorite detective film.


Agree with our picks? What are your favorite detective mysteries? Will you be checking out Prisoners this weekend?

Article by James Hausman 


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