The Problem With Puzzle Films

From the first day of my introductory film class, there was one particular type of film that, frustratingly, everyone wanted to talk about — the puzzle film. These films focus on plot twists and storytelling that diverges from standard definitions of time and space, thus making the viewer’s goal to piece together the chronology and truth of the narrative like a puzzle.

The early aughts style has effectively left its grubby fingertips all over cinema’s popular genres in the past 20 years, most notably science fiction and crime films. As in any case, puzzle films are not exclusively bad, but they are problematic as a genre because they focus more on piecing together their plots than anything more meaningful. For example, M. Night Shyamalan, an early pioneer of the puzzle film, became quickly lampooned for his exaggerated used of plot twists, such as in his breakout film “The Sixth Sense.”

One of the puzzle film’s more acclaimed proprietors is David Fincher, though he shares just as many of the issues for which Shyamalan is criticized. It’s no secret that Fincher’s “Fight Club” is one of the most beloved modern films, especially among young cinephiles — and it is a key text in understanding the problem of puzzle films. In short, the film concerns an office worker (Edward Norton) who befriends a soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), with whom he starts an underground fight club. In a now well-known twist, Durden is revealed to not exist at all, bringing the reality of the film’s previous events into question.

As a work of art, “Fight Club” seems to include only the obvious themes. The concepts of toxic masculinity and materialism are naturally brought to the viewer’s mind by virtue of the subject matter, but the film doesn’t have much to say about them. “Fight Club” is also devoid of emotion, leaving the viewer cold, as many puzzle films do. In both cases, the film would rather focus on using its plot to screw with its viewer’s head than make them think deeply or feel anything. Once the solution of the puzzle is put together, the viewer is left with little to engage with.

Another beloved figure in the style is Christopher Nolan, whose “Memento” helped define the puzzle film. He has carried the style’s aesthetic and narrative philosophies into the rest of his filmography. Notably, his most recent film, “Dunkirk,” applies the puzzle structure to a spectacle-driven war film, embarking on an empty technical exercise that mixes three different timelines into one chronological narrative. The film has no comment on the flow of time or structure within a story, so that mangling of the narrative ultimately serves no purpose other than to flex Nolan’s muscles at the audience.

Those films are rebels without a cause. Puzzle films do nothing to challenge narratives themselves. They complicate their plots without purpose or any additional thematic and formal thought, making their existence meaningless in itself. In essence, they exist merely to emphasize the self-serious coolness of the creators. It’s an insecure brand of filmmaking that uses its artificial complexity to hide their directorial shallowness — which is the farthest thing from cool and confident. In many ways, puzzle films are like poorly written academic papers, disguising a lack of substance with language that talks itself in circles.

One other thing stuck out to me in my first class period. After our professor explained that we would watch some silent, black-and-white and foreign films, as would be expected in an overview of the art form’s history, a young man sitting a few rows behind me let out an audible groan. I turned around to see who he was, but he never came to class again. In the following weeks, puzzle films became a frequent topic of discussion.

I couldn’t help but be somewhat unsettled and bored by the one-dimensionality of the discussions surrounding these films. Puzzle films are easy to discuss precisely because they are so one-dimensional, leaving little room for the challenging intellectual inquiries that even some of the biggest Hollywood hits possess. Fans of puzzle films often praise their meticulous plot constructions and would argue that they serve as useful tools to teach students about story construction. This is not true, since experiments with narrative have been taking place since the movies began. It’s been done before, and it’s been done better. For example, Alain Resnais’ films explore chronology in far more substantial, emotional ways. Using puzzle films as a starting point is akin to throwing someone into a wild stampede and asking them to sort the animals in order. It’s an absurd exercise that teaches us nothing about cinema — whether we are filmmakers, scholars or curious students.

The point of an introductory course is to expand one’s mind in a subject of interest, but we as students hold a responsibility of our own to come to class with a pre-existing initiative to seek out diverse media from other cultures and time periods, especially when it comes to a form as popular as the movies. We’ve been watching them all our lives, and they’re more available than ever. The artistic possibilities are endless, and many of them have a lot to say. Let’s leave the trend of these IMDb-approved puzzlers behind and explore the rainbow of unique characters, emotions and symbols that our medium has gifted us. After all, there’s far more to a film than its plot.

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