Left Undone: Three Detective Thrillers


Earlier this year, the little things reminded audiences that the detective thriller is alive and well.  Despite the discord surrounding American police procedures and standards, the concept of an investigator seeking recompense for the dead will always intrigue as notions of compulsion, honor, and darkness are themes that enthrall those who live outside that world, especially in the time of COVID.  Perhaps one of the most potent aspects of this subgenre of cinema are films in which there is no clear resolution and the concept of justice is deconstructed in uncomfortable and often visceral manners.  What follows is an examination of three such films and how they can be viewed.

The Pledge (2001)

Director Sean Penn's magnum opus, The Pledge also features one of Jack Nicholson's finest performances.  The story focuses on a retiring detective who, on his last day, makes an oath to find the killer of a young girl to her grieving parents.  What follows is a tightly wound thriller that examines the perils of obsession, betrayal, and chance.  Outside of a solid ensemble (Aaron Eckhart, Robin Wright Penn, Tom Noonan, Helen Mirren, Patricia Clarkson, and Benicio Del Toro support), Chris Menges’ crisp cinematography captures the beauty of nature, juxtaposing it with the horrors of the case.  

Beyond Nicholson's fascinating performance, the concept of personal destruction is of import.  Penn's departure from procedural cliches allows the narrative to stay grounded in the emotional minutiae: the eventual, unavoidable certainty that things will not be alright and it is a surrender to this truth that allows The Pledge to infiltrate our subconscious, linking the viewing with countless survivors of trauma. Ultimately it is the desolation of the hunter who will never find its prey that is the core, and yet, justice somehow finds a way, a theme that is prevalent across all of these films.

Memories of Murder (2003)


Bong Joon-ho's sophomore feature is a stone cold masterwork, a vortex of darkness, pitch black satire, and an unusual amalgam of group dynamics and masculinity.  Following the events of Korea's first recorded serial killer, the story focuses on converging law enforcement officers who are dealing with an evil they are woefully unprepared for.  While obsession continues as a theme, Joon-ho's meticulous design is more interested in the failure of institutions.  The police routinely violate human rights and use corrupt tactics in a desperate bid to find the killer expeditiously.  They lack the technology to process evidence and the walls of societal order are slowly crumbling as the body count rises, giving way to an onslaught of uncertainty.  This is Joon-ho's dissent.  

The attention to detail is the film's strongest element.  Everything has an aura of authenticity that enhances the dread that is woven through the heart of the narrative.  These are flawed, ordinary humans who are faced with something inherently unnatural and evil and the result is a lack of confrontation and what seems like a miscarriage of justice for the victims.   This is what Joon-ho is after, how to make sense of reality when the knowledge that evil will triumph is everywhere, how does a sense of normalcy every return.  As the world slowly extricates itself from clutches of COVID, the irony that the true killer was eventually caught is bittersweet. as justice, in its many forms often takes lifetimes to truly be served. 

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Winning the academy award for best foreign picture, Juan Jose Campenella's Earth shattering mystery combines elements from the previous films to zero in on the human aspect at the center.  Obsession, things left undone, and systemic failure serve as the foundation for an investigation into a heinous crime.  Sprawling over two decades, the suspect is identified early, yet through the working of a cannibalistic political machine, is never brought to trial.  The emotional gamut is run, with respect to the victim's surviving husband and the lead detective’s unrequited love for his superior. These important subplots are also essential as their resolution is perhaps one of the greatest (and most surprising) endings in the history of cinema. 

It's no surprise that Secret has the most succinct ending, mainly because it is a cathartic response to the egregious tragedies that are continuously visited upon the viewer in the two hours prior.  Monsters abound in the streets, in the bedroom, and in the office, as Campenella spares no one from his focus.  Highlighting important events from Argentina's history, this is a masterful blending of potent imagery and disdainful reminders of the past; specters that haunt each of these films with their bloodstained regrets from a past that is impossible to change. 


--Kyle Jonathan