14 Movies Where The Mystery Never Gets Solved
Most people go into mystery movies expecting a satisfying payoff where all the questions the story raises are answered and the villain is brought to justice. Whether it’s a police procedural, a legal thriller, or a story about an unlikely amateur sleuth, most movies that revolve around mysteries are carefully plotted to make the solution both surprising and satisfying. But some movies choose to break this convention in a big way by leaving the mystery unsolved. While this can infuriate some viewers, it can also raise themes and questions that straightforward whodunits are structurally incapable of doing.
While classic mysteries tend to focus on plot, unresolved mysteries can focus on character. Movies like Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Pledge examine how people can become obsessed with unsolved crimes, while movies like Broken Flowers and Mamma Mia! show how mysteries about identity can transform the characters involved even if they never find the answers they're looking for. All of these movies use their lack of solutions to unearth deeper truths. But which one uses ambiguity to the greatest effect? The decision is yours. Vote up the best movies that totally leave you hanging.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Adapting true crime stories presents ethical pitfalls, but David Fincher’s 2007 mystery, Zodiac, avoids sensationalizing real-life tragedy by focusing on the hunt for an unidentified serial killer rather than the victims. During the late 1960s, the self-titled Zodiac Killer committed at least five murders in Northern California while taunting investigators and newspapers with cryptic messages. The movie follows the amateur detective work of San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who spent 13 years trying to uncover the killer’s identity. Graysmith loses his job, marriage, and almost his mind over his obsession with the case, but DNA evidence eventually exonerates the man he singles out as a prime suspect.
Fincher was determined to make Zodiac historically accurate, largely in response to the Clint Eastwood movie, Dirty Harry, which is also based on the case. “[A]ppalled” by how easily the killer is identified in Eastwood's film, Fincher argued that it oversimplified the complexity and terror of the Zodiac Killer and undermined the work of the real-life investigators behind the unsolved case. Instead of being a taut whodunit, Zodiac centers on Graysmith’s escalating obsession with the unresolved mystery and the ongoing legacy of one of the most infamous serial killers in American history.
- Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Martin McDonagh’s 2017 tragicomedy, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as Mildred, a grieving mother seeking justice for her teenage daughter’s rape and murder. Seven months after the tragedy, there are still no suspects, and Mildred casts blame onto the local police department, commissioning three billboards on the road outside town to be painted with a challenge to the chief of police (Woody Harrelson). "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests," "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" This infuriates Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a virulently racist cop who is loyal to the chief. His unsympathetic response seems to justify Mildred’s belief that the authorities have failed through carelessness, but as her actions grow more destructive and Willoughby is revealed to be a diligent officer dying of cancer, the story becomes less a murder mystery than a portrait of the moral ambiguity of revenge and the corrosive nature of anger.
In the end, it is Dixon who tries to save Mildred from herself. When he overhears a stranger confessing to the rape and murder of a teenager, he helps secure the DNA evidence to prove his guilt. The man turns out to be innocent of the offense, but Mildred is determined to kill him anyway. At the end of the movie, she and Dixon have thrown a gun into the back of her station wagon and hit the road to track him down. Mildred has abandoned any prospect of finding her daughter’s killer but is still determined to exact revenge on someone. The ending is ambiguous. Just before the credits roll, Mildred and Dixon admit to harboring doubts about the mission, but the audience never finds out if they go through with the killing. The movie shows a revenge narrative without a target, revealing the ethical murkiness of making heroes out of those who channel their grief into violence.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report explores the familiar sci-fi themes of free will and the moral implications of futuristic technology. In 2054, the US government has created the Precrime Unit, a branch of law enforcement that uses mediums to predict and thereby prevent future crimes. The chief of the program, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), joined the force after the disappearance of his young son, Sean. Had Precrime been available at the time of the boy’s abduction, Anderton believes the crime would never have happened. He is a true believer in the program… until the unit receives a prediction that he himself will kill a stranger named Leo Crow within days. In a race to prove his innocence, Anderton discovers that Crow may be responsible for Sean’s disappearance. Though Crow admits to the crime and has ample evidence implicating himself, Anderton realizes it's a setup and defies the Precrime prediction by refusing to kill him. In the end, he never finds out what happened to his son.
The ongoing mystery of Sean's disappearance sends Anderton into a years-long journey of grief and acceptance. At first, Anderton clings unquestioningly to the belief that Precrime can prevent similar tragedies from befalling other parents. But when he’s set up to murder Crow, the idea that the mediums infallibly predict the future is thrown into question. This doubt leads Anderton to uncover the darkness at the origins of Precrime and the deadly secrets held by its founder (Max Von Sydow). In doing so, he finally makes peace with the painful fact that not all crimes can be solved, let alone predicted, and that he will never know what happened to his son.
- Photo: RKO Radio Pictures
Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 psychological thriller, Rashomon featured the first cinematic example of unreliable flashbacks. Centering on the rape of a young bride by a bandit and the subsequent murder of her samurai husband, the story follows the four conflicting witness testimonies. In turn, the bandit (Toshirô Mifune), the wife (Machiko Kyô), the samurai (Masayuki Mori), and a woodcutter who discovered the body (Takashi Shimura) recount how the samurai died. The bandit proudly remembers besting him in a fair duel. The bride tearfully recalls begging her husband to kill her, fainting in heartbreak and shame, and waking up to find him dead by an unknown hand. The samurai himself (speaking through a medium) claims to have taken his own life in a show of honor. The woodcutter remembers the bride goading the men into fighting each other and the bandit and samurai artlessly grappling with each other until the bandit stabbed the cowering samurai. As a supposedly impartial witness, the woodcutter’s story should be the most trustworthy, but when it’s later revealed that he lied about a key detail (the existence of a dagger), his story is thrown into question as well.
Before filming for the movie began, Kurosawa’s three assistant directors approached him, frustrated with the inconclusiveness of the script and wanting to know who had told the truth about the samurai’s demise. Kurosawa responded that if they read it carefully, they would understand. What he meant was that the solution to the mystery was not who killed the samurai, but what the differing accounts reveal about each character. How the four witnesses present the incident delivers a truth more accurate than a factual retelling could.
Australian director Peter Weir is probably best known to global audiences for the Robin Williams vehicle Dead Poets Society or Harrison Ford’s sensitive action hero turn in Witness. But before breaking into Hollywood, Weir was a pioneering member of the Australian New Wave, presenting lyrical and enigmatic movies that helped bring the artistic sensibilities of the continent down under to international attention. Based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, his languid 1975 mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock follows the St. Valentine’s Day outing of an all-girls school that ends in the disappearance of several students and a chaperone. One student reappears a week later but has no recollection of what transpired. Although this mystery pervades most of the film, it acts as a mood rather than a narrative set-up for a third-act reveal.
For anyone who likes straightforward mysteries, Picnic at Hanging Rock is likely an infuriating viewing experience. Its focus on gauzy visuals and obscure meditations on the natural world leaves no room for logical deduction, even as the students’ headmistress insists there must be a reasonable explanation. The fact that the mystery is never solved allows various interpretations, including the possibility that none of it happened or that something supernatural is underpinning it all. Some view the movie as a metaphor for the disconnect between the white European colonists of Australia and the mysterious new land they inhabit. Weir himself was captivated by the idea of what it means for a person to disappear, “to be neither alive nor dead.” Some mysteries, he suggests, are not there to be solved.
- Photo: Warner Bros.
The Pledge, Sean Penn’s third foray into directing, is set up like a classic “catch the killer" narrative along the same well-worn lines as The Fugitive or Mystic River. But there is no confrontation between the detective and the murderer at the end of the movie. Instead, the audience is left with the agonizing knowledge that the main character will never find the man he’s looking for - or know why. The story follows Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson), a police detective on the brink of retirement who is pulled back into work when the mother of a slain girl begs him to find the killer. Pledging himself to the case, Black becomes consumed, unwilling to accept the easy answers and lazy detective work of his colleagues. Even after the case has been closed, Black is convinced the culprit is still out there. When he discovers that similar crimes have been committed by a man known to his young targets as “the wizard,” he sets up his girlfriend’s child as bait. On the way to the arranged meeting, however, the wizard is killed in a car crash. Black is unaware of this twist of fate and assumes the killer has again eluded justice. In the final scene, the former detective sits outside, drunk and alone, mumbling to himself.
The Pledge is a rare case in which the audience knows the truth but the characters do not. The bad guy is dead, but Black will never know that. He is destined to live the rest of his life thinking that the man is still out there committing horrific misdeeds. This adds a layer of tragedy to an already heartbreaking story, but it offers a dose of realism as well. Natural forces are always at play, even in the world of single-minded detective stories. Black is a man who is so gripped with obsession that it would never occur to him that the mystery could be cut short by something as mundane as a car crash. By never allowing Black to learn of the killer's fate, the movie dooms him to be tormented by his fixation until it consumes him, unaware that the case has already been resolved.