The Invisible Guest: Oriol Paulo (2016) – Can Thrillers and Locked Rooms work together?

A man stirs from unconsciousness, sprawled on the floor of his hotel room, as he hears the police banging against the door. Coming to, he finds his mistress lying dead in the bathroom, she has been bludgeoned to death. Calling out to the police for help they break down the door and storm in. The problem? All the doors and windows are locked from the inside, the door was watched, and there is no one else in the room. The man is arrested as the only suspect, now about to stand trial for murder.

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This delicious problem is presented in the brand new Spanish impossible crime thriller The Invisible Guest by Oriol Paulo. The Spanish title is ‘Contratiempo, the literal English translation of which is ‘Against Time’, which I think would in some ways have been a better name, and I’ll explain why. The film opens with Adrián Doria, a hugely successful young business man, receiving a late night call at his apartment where he is now under house arrest for the murder. Doria’s high powered lawyer has employed the services of Virginia Goodman, a prestigious defence attorney who has never lost a case. Goodman comes with the news that a witness with a new piece of evidence has emerged for the prosecution. The judge has called for the witness to testify that same night, which means that Doria and Goodman have only three hours in which to figure out how the crime was committed and compose a solid defence, or he goes to prison for murder. She starts a stop watch and places it one the desk, the untangling begins.

A great hook right? The locked room angle and the ticking clock have you on the edge of your seat from the off. Goodman asks Doria to explain the events from the start as they happened, which gives us a very natural piece of exposition to bring us into the crime and it’s surrounding story. The film develops into a cleverly layered set of extremely twisty plots that build into a number of big crescendos. A lot of the ‘detection’ is done by Goodman as she tries to unpick the motives, and double cross purposes of all involved. She tests and pushes Doria to his limit to draw out every angle on the case possible, and the detection is focussed as much on intuition and feeling – “What does this puzzle say to you?”- as much as does on ratiocination and the deconstruction of evidence.

There are a couple of absolutely killer scenes, and there is one plot point in particular -when one victim’s phone rings… I won’t say anything more – which is heart in throat stuff. The cast is also sparse, which works both for atmosphere and plotting. The cinematography is beautifully moody, with a gorgeous blue and green hue haunting the whole film, across a very limited number of locations. I had heard about this film over at the Golden Age Detection group on Facebook, but didn’t think we would get an English release. So I was chuffed when my wonderful sister told me that it was now on Netflix! I urge my readers to give it a go.

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However, I do have a number of criticisms about this film, and that brings me to the title of this post. The Invisible Guest seems to suffer from the problem of trying to do to many things at once, therefore watering down each aspect in turn.

The hook of the three hour time limit, which kicks us off with a bang, is not really used as the plot moves forward. We now and again get a shot of the stop watch, but otherwise the tension is not capitalised upon, which limits the urgency of solving the crime. Therefore, what could have been a brilliantly claustrophobic dialogue between Doria and Goodman across the apartment table, ends up falling a little flat.

The same then goes for the locked room problem. Because Paulo has tried to create a surprise twist by twist plot, the complexity of the locked room starts to get consumed, and the intellectual focus of the impossible crime that opens the film gets lost. This is then apparent in the solution to the locked room itself. When I got to the end, I watched the set up back a number of times just to make sure, but I honestly don’t think it is fairly clewed (would really appreciate your thoughts on that readers), which is a shame because there is some really solid clewing elsewhere. And in the context of what has been set up I’m not sure the solution would be full proof and actually possible. Carr used a very similar solution idea in one of his short stories, but did it better because it was really believable in how it occurred.

And as for the twists, there were so many that they start to loose force, and therefore I could see the final revelation coming a mile off. This meant that what could have been a powerful tying together of threads lost it’s punch because of predictability.

What I will say in it’s defence is that the motive for the twists and the locked room are solid, if  a little outlandish, which is not an easy thing to get right. Therefore it makes me all the more sad that these elements are crowded out by the film trying to be too clever for it’s own good.

So after all that, my question is, can a locked room and a thriller style plot really mix? Does the speed and twisty nature of modern thriller writing work alongside the slow and methodical nature of a locked room problem, or will they always be bumping heads?

I guess a simple answer would be yes, of course they can, as pretty much anything can happen with good writing. There are many stories yet to be penned, so there is nothing stopping it happening. If we look at books like Till Death Do us Part and She Died a Lady by Carr, they are mind blowing in their pace, and shocking plot turns with impossible problems being the absolute centre of the plot. But then in my opinion these books are more thrilling than thriller if that makes sense? So, is it that the elements needed to create a modern thriller are just too different for the elements needed to create a brilliant locked room puzzle? I guess the bigger question is what is the authorial context that makes a thriller work the best and the same for a locked room story? Let me know your thoughts.

Do give The Invisible Guest a go, there is so much to like, and I really enjoyed seeing a screen writer deal with a modern locked room problem. If you loved it and the locked room solution let me know, I’m ready to be wrong! You can watch the trailer here to get in the mood:

 

 

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13 thoughts on “The Invisible Guest: Oriol Paulo (2016) – Can Thrillers and Locked Rooms work together?”

  1. Thanks for the review – this sounds like an interesting, even compelling, movie. 🙂 I suppose I need to wait for the DVD release, which won’t be anytime soon?

    I do think it’s entirely possible for the genres of locked room mysteries and thrillers to merge, but there are just very few examples of it? Then again, there just aren’t that many fairly-clued locked-room puzzles floating around today. I suppose the usual distinction is between the genres of classic mysteries and thrillers – and even then there are very few examples of it. Though this should probably be attributed to my limited reading repertoire.

    I wonder if Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ would be a golden age example of classic mystery blending into thriller? Then again some might dispute if it were fairly-clued in the first place.

    I suppose if thrillers are fundamentally defined as ‘thrilling’, I would see no problems merging genres. But it seems to me that the thriller genre is predicated on creating thrills by twists that more often than not pounce on the reader/ viewer without prior clues. Hence the struggle to merge genres?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Release will probably be a little while as it only got released outside of Spain in January.

      I think you your point about there not being many pure and fairly clewed locked rooms around at the moment is poignant because it often means that the solutions presented (as with this film) are underwhelming, and what makes a locked room so good is not clearly observed. The Invisible Guest feels like a thriller writer trying to do a locked room, but not quite knowing how, and only really using it as a hook, which is disappointing.

      I do think that ATTWN is a huge forerunner to most of what we call thrillers now, and set pace for many of them. Although someone with more expertise of thriller history would need to comment deeper on that!

      And you are right about surprise twists – although you can still do this in detective fiction (think She Died a Lady again) – but again keeping you guessing is not the main point of GAD… possibly?

      Like

  2. The difficulty wth merging genres in this way is that you have to be clear what makes something fit into a particular genre. An impossible crime mystery has the impossibility front and centre, which is why it frustrates me that Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop always ends up on those Best Impossible Crime lists because it’s a minor aspect right at the end, and a thriller comes from a thrilling situation that imposes an imminent and not easily-sidestepped threat to our characters. So if out of the impossibility comes the need to urgently address a threateing situation…sure, why not?

    The difficulty there is that the definition of what makes a genre is potentially a false premise. Thrillers are not necessarily logical, whereas good impossible crimes tend to have an air of reason and possibility about them; detection often requires us to go back over events to re-examinr them, where thrillers are usually about moving ever-forward and then fitting what happens into a pattern, the events themselves being clear but the reason behind them in communion unknown. The two can be combined, no doubt – Herbert Brean does it in Wilders Walk Away, for my moey — but some nature of sacrifice must be made each way, and then purists of each genre will gripe that it’s not a “proper” impossibility or a “proper” thriller because of X, Y, and Z.

    I have a feeling I’m tlsaking my way round in circles…

    Also, are you sure this is Italian? Because watching the trailer again they sound very Spanish…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have no idea why I typed Italian! And Twice! (post edited)

      I like your idea that something must be sacrificed to combine each one, because I do think thriller and impossibility are very different ideas, and require different things to move forward. As you said, if the impossibility creates a threatening situation then brilliant, in this film I think it seemed to at first (the three hour time limit is upon them), but then that all gets confused and lost – and then the ultimately the plotting reasons for the locked room and the motivations are confused. Although I have said that the motive for the impossibility in this works (which it does on it’s own terms), but related to the bigger plot it does become confused because it’s trying to become an aspect of a thriller when it just doesn’t fit with it. Which is annoying becuase the beginning of the film, and a;; the adverts for it make it look like the locked room is the main element. I think thats why I left The Invisible Guest feeling flat and underwhelmed, I don’t think the film knows what it is.

      Like

      1. I get ever-more intrigued the more I hear. Okay, all I need to do is get Netflix, clear a couple of hours in my schedule, watch it, and then I can do The Invisible Guest at The Invisible Event…we were made for each other! Thought, I gotta be honest, that’s not going to happen any time soon. I have no desire to get Netflix, I’m terrifically bad at freeing time to specifically sit and watch a film or TV show — a lot of change is going to have to happen in my life to make this happen.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Dan–

    I just finished this one on Netflix. Really, really good–probably the best cinematic mystery I’ve seen in a long time. (Then again, I suppose there’s not much competition, especially nowadays.)

    It’s very old-fashioned, both in plot and in filmmaking, which I loved, and the build-up is lovely: complex, many-layered, yet instantly comprehensible, which is exactly how I like detective-stories. (None of the old “green tie” business, as Carr would call it.) The acting–from Ana Wagener and José Coronado in particular–is excellent, and the whole thing was first-class both as a mystery and as a film.

    Naturally, I’ll try to circumnavigate the spoilers: I quite agree about the three-hour time limit, and I think that if they had not included that element, the picture would have been stronger. (I completely agree with what you wrote here: “We now and again get a shot of the stop watch, but otherwise the tension is not capitalised upon, which limits the urgency of solving the crime. “) With that said, if they hadn’t, the hook would have been weakened in the very beginning–and, as that hook so rapidly draws us into a fine tale, I can understand the motive, even if the culmination is not as effective as we would wish.

    I think I liked the locked-room puzzle a bit more than you:

    [brief SPOILERS]

    I loved the first false solution, which was not any kind of grand illusion but a simple way of managing the effect under pressure, and probably the way that a real-life locked-room puzzle would genuinely be effected. I tend not to like the subset of solutions under which the real answer falls, but this one was fine just because the exposition built up to it, and it seemed to follow through with the characters’ real personalities.

    [end SPOILERS]

    Indeed, in the end, one can call this a locked-room mystery of a different sort than we expected, no? 🙂

    I certainly saw one or two twists coming, but the final one (I think you know what I mean) was a doozy and completely caught me by surprise. To be frank, I wasn’t watching for cluing–to the movie’s credit, I was so caught up by the plot and characters!–and would have to take another look to respond to the concerns you raised.

    I’m considering your overarching question but don’t have a satisfactory answer, unfortunately. The locked room seems to cry out for cinematic adaptations–it’s more visual and cinematic than, say, your conventional “patriarch murdered in big country house on eve of changing his will for the millionth time”–but it also requires genuine effort taken with cluing, plotting, and the rest of it, which would not comport with the modern thriller, which wants to go a mile a minute.

    With that said, Fracture (’07) was a fine thriller that also contained an ingenious, fairly-clued impossible crime, so I certainly won’t say it can’t be done. The Prestige (’06), one of the best-clued movies of them all, doesn’t have a strict impossible crimes in it, but it does show that a film can both be a thriller and contain mystery-style plotting. Same for a few others–Sleepy Hollow (’99), The Spanish Prisoner (’97). In fact, now that I think of it (and preparing the way for Hallowe’en), even The House on Haunted Hill (’59)–an absolute stupid, silly favorite of mine–throws in one or two clues.

    As for other possibilities: much of Cornell Woolrich’s works (and their film adaptations) combine thrillers and impossible crimes. “All at Once, No Alice” (I think that was the title) is a good example, which I know because it was in the Black Lizard book a few years back, but there are several others, according to Mike Grost’s site.

    Certainly, I believe it can be done, though there is some inherent difficulty, methinks.

    Thanks so much for the Contratiempo recommendation. Really good little movie.

    Karl

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for this Karl, really glad you enjoyed it. You are right, it is a beautifully filmed, plotted and acted piece, and solid quality when there is not much of this being made at all (apart from in Japan it seems!)

      Glad you agree with my thoughts on the time limit device – it seemed almost like an add in hook, like the kind of things you would put on an advert on the train to sell a book, which is then frustrating because you feel mis-sold.

      I agree that so many more locked room films could be made! And you can create a super fast paced locked room, take Carr’s ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ as an example, and so as you say to balance solid clewing and plotting with pace is the golden triangle really! And i do feel this film suffers from not working that correctly, and falling into too many tropes of (particularly from the thriller genre) which then negate each other.

      SPOILERS!
      (don’t read if you want to watch):

      I agree with your thoughts about the false solution – and it does fit in with how the plot works and makes sense of the characters motivations – but then as you know I think the solution wasn’t fairly clued (visually and verbally), and also I don’t think it’s a very interesting or credible solution. Which comes back to the whole film is sold on the premise time limit and the locked room; to have the solution not be that tight is disappointing. Basically I feel like, don’t lead in with a strong locked room if you are not going to live up to it in the solution!

      END SPOILERS

      Liked by 1 person

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