Cerebral Thrillers: How Far is Too Far?

Cerebral: adjective--betraying or characterized by the use of intellect rather than intuition or instinct.

I recently watched a thriller on Netflix Instant called Exam. It's an independent British thriller about eight unidentified job applicants competing for one position. They have to take a final exam that only has one question with only one answer. The problem is they do not know what the one question is. They have eighty minutes to find the question and answer. If they communicate with the proctor or security guard, they are eliminated. If they spoil their answer sheet, they are eliminated. If they leave the room, they are eliminated. Otherwise, there are no rules.

While I rather enjoyed the film, I think writer/director Stuart Hazeldine got stuck in his head. The ending of the film, when the ultimate answer is revealed, left me with more questions than answers. Call me dense. I just didn't get it while the movie was playing. I picked up on all the clues that were laid out quite quickly, but could not piece them together to anything that resembled the one correct answer to the film. I wound up sitting at my desk with a notepad, jotting down the clues and sequence of events to try and work out the method for the solution in reverse. I eventually figured out what Hazeldine was going for, but not without figuring out many alternative solutions that also satisfied the same conditions set forth in the film. The ending is just a disappointment because of its specificity.

I initially blamed myself for not getting it. Many reviewers said the joy of the film is the audience knowing the answer while the characters don't. However, I began to wonder if perhaps this exercise in cerebral thrillers was a bit too cerebral. Did Hazeldine get so caught up in his own brilliant story (or adaptation of a story, as it was) that he let accessibility fall to the wayside? Did he ultimately go too obtuse in making a thriller where the action sequences involve changing light spectrums and fingerprint identification?

Going too cerebral in a thriller can be a problem. One of my favorite film directors, Lucky McKee, made a similar error in his companion film to breakout hit May. Directed by collaborator Angela Bettis (star of May) and starring McKee himself, Roman, a quiet thriller about a man who slowly learns to open up to the world through his relationship with an adventurous but equally depressed artist, hinges its plot on the creation of a piece of performance art. Roman's girlfriend Eva continually tells him she will end her life when her final project is complete. This project will be her legacy and will finally give her the attention she deserves.

The difference between Exam and Roman is one of focus. Hazeldine used minor action set pieces as a driving force for long stretches of intense dialog. McKee and Bettis do the exact opposite; brief moments of expositional dialog are used to open up longer sequences of compelling imagery. Exam confines itself to one room--the heart of the company--while Roman uses a wide variety of open locations to create a more varied visual. Ultimately, Exam has a more convincing lead-in to its obtuse finale while Roman hinges everything on a great final visual that is equally confusing but more compelling.

It's not just independent films that are pushing the boundaries of cerebral thrillers. Inception became a box office smash working off a continually evolving premise of dream theories. The stars of the film perform corporate espionage on a man while he's sleeping, entering three different dream levels to implant specific messages that--if everything goes right--will force him to split up his family's company. Christopher Nolan frontloads his sci-fi/cerebral thriller with a lot of exposition. If you lose focus during one scene, you might be struggling to pick up the pieces again later. Still, Inception resonated with a wide audience and became a pop culture phenomenon because of the heady narrative.

Shutter Island posed a similar challenge to audiences. A detective is called to an insane asylum to solve a missing person case. One of the inmates escaped without any sign of an escape route. As the story progresses, things became stranger and stranger. Nothing is lining up with the initial call for investigation. The ending provides a clear route to two equally valid interpretations of everything that happened, though the film's harshest critics believe anyone who believes one alternative over another is an idiot.

If you give too many options in a cerebral thriller, the audience might not get it. If you go too specific in the final outcome of the film, the audience might not get it. If you provide too much exposition, the audience might not get it. And if you provide too little exposition, the audience might not get it.

The ultimate challenge of the cerebral thriller is controlling how the audience will react to your story. You, as a filmmaker, have to make sure the plot is paced out just right so the majority of the audience doesn't figure out your film too early. You also need to make sure the final solution is clear enough that the majority of the audience understands. If it's too clear or too easy, the film has failed to catch the audience. If the audience doesn't get it, the audience doesn't like the film and it has failed.

There is no perfect formula for a cerebral thriller. There are only the efforts of a filmmaking team to produce the best ride they can.