The Truly Confounding Spinning Man Deconstructed and Explained

The Truly Confounding Spinning Man Deconstructed and Explained - or how this confusing movie only gets more confusing the deeper you look at it. IMDB
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I am literally doing breathing exercises to stay calm currently. Having just finished watching Spinning Man, I know it is going to be a serious lift to get us through this film. Why? Because it is so confoundingly good. Matthew Aldrich has done a masterful job with the screenplay of George Harrar’s book. And any movie that headlines, Guy Pearce, Pierce Brosnan, and Minnie Driver? You are going to have to have a good movie on your hands. But what ISN’T guaranteed is an open ended mindjob, which, my friends, is what we have here today.

So, get out your paper bags, breathe into them occasionally to control your breathing, and let’s do this thing.

Right, so if you’ve never heard of Spinning Man, it’s now watchable via Amazon, and you use my link here, you’ll help me in a small way, to keep this space as a great location for arguing, discussing, and debating these great movie. I happened to just miss its theatrical run, but was reinvigorated to watch after Yoanna posted we should all watch it here on the site.

Basically, Spinning Man is a really clever quasi-non-linear, murder mystery thriller that is engineered to leave you wondering at the end of the film, “WHAT THE HECK?!?” And those movies? Those movies are catnip to us at THiNC., right? Right. The movie opens with a missing teenager and an intense investigation into where she’s gone. And we are also given a shot of the lake, where we see from our all knowing vantage, that this particular teenager? Yeah, she’s already dead at the bottom of the town’s lake. Evan Birch (played by Guy Pearce) is a professor of an unnamed college. And when Joyce (played by Odeya Rush), a cheerleader from a nearby high school goes missing, it is Evan that slowly but surely becomes the primary suspect. And it is up to Detective Malloy (played by Pierce Brosnan) to untangle the conflicting evidence he is uncovering at a rapid pace. 

I am nearly certain that most people won’t really enjoy this movie. Why? Because this one is going to take work, and thought, to unpack. You are actually the true detective of this film. The only one that will effectively determine what really happened to Joyce. But you? You are going to like it. Because, look at you…! You are smart. And inquisitive. You are DETERMINED! And if I were you, I wouldn’t watch this trailer. Just go pick up a copy of Spinning Man, a notebook, a bic pen, and some popcorn, and then come on back to join in on the discussion that is about to explode right here.

Alright – from here on out, be dragons. One enormous confluence of a billion Spinning Man Spoilers. Readers beware. You’ve been warned.

The movie Spinning Man has three key timeline threads to it that would look something like this

 ——- > 1 ——- > 2 ——- > 3

  1. Joyce encounters man and ends up dead
  2. Malloy hunts the killer
  3. Evan walks into Malloy’s office

(An argument could be made for four. The fourth would be Evan’s and Ellen’s time in Evanston, near Chicago.) It’d be more like this:

——- > 1 ——- > 2 ——- > 3 ——- > 4

  1. Evan and Ellen leave Chicago because of affair allegation
  2. Joyce encounters man and ends up dead
  3. Malloy hunts the killer
  4. Evan walks into Malloy’s office

But we’ll get into whether this first (or fourth) segment is relevant in good time dear random reader. (See what I did there? You know… with the alliteration, and whatnot?)

Let’s just stick with timeline one. Simpler. And I’m already confused. So yeah, the crime occurred five weeks ago – that is thread one. Thread two, where most of the movie occurs, is the unraveling of Evan’s life as Detective is investigating what happened to the teen. And thread three? That is the ending of the movie, which we open with. Evan walks into Detective Malloy’s office and asks the question, “Do you ever have issues remembering things?” And the tricky bit is that for the first quarter of the movie, it bounces back and forth, until it finally settles down into timeline two.

So, with that question from Evan, we have the foundational question of the movie. Did Evan kill the girl, and just forget? Is Evan a reliable narrator of events? Has Evan been up to things that even he is unaware of? Everything is totally up for grabs in this movie.

From thread three, we dive backwards into thread one, the beginning, where we see Joyce, who is excitedly awaiting someone’s arrival. We learn later from her diary, that this someone is an older gentleman. We see a man, steeped in tweed, exiting a Volvo, but we don’t see who it is, just his back through the rearview mirror. And we are decisively lead to believe, that it is Evan that was with Joyce before she died.

Spinning Man and Malloy’s Investigation

And quickly we learn that Detective Malloy is on the case and looking for Joyce’s killer. More importantly, we see a conversation between Evan, and another professor, Ross, who was pontificating about the morality of sleeping with a student. And Evan makes it clear that he wouldn’t sleep with the student, “beside the blatant breach of professional ethics, I have my marriage to consider…” Got that? He has a wife to consider. Check!

Later, when Evan is out at a hardware store picking up a mouse trap, (which, I posit, is an ongoing leitmotif throughout the entire movie… watch, you will see) when Evan has a lurid affair with a woman working at the store, right there in the aisle. Except? It was 100% in his mind. At least we are pretty sure that it was just in his mind. You see how this is going to get stickier and stickier don’t you? Right, good. Well, when Evan arrives home he finds himself getting hauled into the police department after refusing to allow his Volvo to be search.

And, what Malloy needs to figure out is, where was Evan when Joyce went missing? Ellen had said that Evan was picking up their daughter from camp that day. But Evan didn’t want the cops into his car. Why? Well, he says, the 4th amendment. Hrmmm.

The Spinning Man and the Limits of Truth

During one of Evan’s lectures they begin to discuss the details of Zeno’s Paradox. You know the one. In attempting to cross the room, I cross a quarter of the room. Then a quarter. And I never am able to make it fully across the room. The point being, that the limits of language uncovers the supposed limits of truth. Evan surmises that it is impossible for him to tell the truth. Rather, he is only able to communicate the truth that he can perceive.

Which, is significant. On like a billion different levels. Most of which have nothing to do with this movie at all. But, I’ll leave all those to go… and concentrate on the relativism that Evan is espousing, and what it means for our ability to understand this movie. And what it means for who killed Joyce. Because this movie isn’t going to help us. We are going to have to do it ourselves. The idea of Truth, used to be reserved for theologians and philosophers to delineate. Until, the Enlightenment. All rational beings were able to posit and test for truth. Science made it possible for mankind to use data, and measurements, to find true and false classifications. SIMPLE! But, then that brings us to Søren Kierkegaard – who said that science, while capable of producing facts, and information, that it was not capable of discerning the kinds of truths that has been sought for by generations and eons of people.

And later on, in a conversation between Anna and Professor Birch (sorry, that was a bit of tongue in cheek there, Evan), they discus Wittgenstein and his ability to argue the limits of truth during the day, and have sex with men in the park at night. The point being, he didn’t seem to be bound by the morality and truth that he was arguing for. Which, from Anna’s perspective seemed utterly duplicitous and wrong. But Evan argues, that Truth is. It’s immaterial to the person’s morality. And, what we do learn from this, is that Evan ascribes to this relativistic vantage, which means that he could easily give himself something of a pass, as long as his memory can expunge the details. So, if he’s able to ditch the memories, ditch the details, then maybe it would excuse away the moral and ethical failing? Something like that.

Evan’s Moral Failings & Their Relation to Joyce

At this point in the movie, we start to learn a lot about Evan. Or, we appear to learn a lot about Evan. So let’s be super clear, we don’t really know what we learn. But here’s what we APPEAR to learn about Evan. The first thing, is that while a professor at Evanston College in Chicago, he might have had an affair with one of his students. And even Ellen says that she saw Evan having sex with a student in his office. But, because they have been talking about this for five years now, Ellen and Evan don’t really discuss this in great detail. So, it could very well have been a setup by the student. We don’t really know.

We also learn that there was some sort of inappropriateness going on between a student of his named Anna from the previous semester. But if you look closely at it, we learn that it was Anna that made a move on Evan. And we do not seem to get any indication that Evan allowed it to continue forward. We get hints that he could have. We know that he’s the sort of bloke that daydreams of women in shops (isn’t that the definition of a man? I take that back… I think I’m about to get pilloried by both men and women alike… I take it back!) – so there’s that. But is it all in his head? Was it just Anna pushing and he denied her advances? We never find out. We do see the two of them making out towards the end of the film… possibly the single most important scene in the movie – but we will discuss this later. Promise. All I am intending here to communicate though, is that we don’t know a lot. We surmise a lot. But we have little facts to go on here.

So, at the end of the day, Evan is a daydreaming letch. Or he is a real letcher, a letch that sleeps with students at every turn. And it was because of this that he lost his position at his previous college, it was because of this that he finds himself in a pinch with Anna. And possibly, it is because of this predisposition that Evan might just have “accidentally” killed Joyce.

The Mouse Traps and Missing Bunnies

And as the evidence mounts that Evan is Joyce’s murderer, we get a completely and utterly useless thread about a lost bunny and some mousetraps. Or do we? The situation is simple enough. Ellen and Evan Birch have mice in their house. And so Evan goes to get a humane trap, which ultimately doesn’t work. Later he gets a few of the regular kind (actually, if you know anything about mousetraps, what he actually purchases are rat traps. Those things are wicked huge.)

But when Evan forgets to close the bunny hutch door all the way, Zelda’s bunny goes missing. The whole family searches. And mid-search, Ellen tells Evan, no more of the absent minded professor… she can’t move again. But Evan has already found the bunny, it was caught in one of his “mousetraps”. So, before going to bed, Evan disposes of the bunny’s body, and then helps Zelda put up Missing Bunny posters the next day. And if it wasn’t obvious enough, what this was really a metaphor for, on the other side of one of the telephone poles they placed a bunny poster, is a Missing Joyce poster that looks nigh-on identical.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but… is this more evidence that Evan has accidentally (or purposefully, who knows?) killed Joyce, hidden the body in the lake, and then gone on with the business of his life? All the while saying he had nothing to do with it, and that he couldn’t even “hurt a fly”?

The Spinning Man and the Final Push

Final push? Haha. Get it? Ok, that was awful. So, as we push through to the end, we learn a number of critical things to the case. That the camp counselor said Evan was 40 minutes late to get his daughter. And when the Malloy impounds his car, they find hair from Joyce in the backseat, as well as Zelda finding her lip balm. Obviously Evan heads to a lawyer, but even he isn’t convinced that Evan didn’t do it.

And there is one scene heading into the ending, that opened my eyes wider than saucers. Ellen, is utterly fixated on the news coverage of Joyce’s killing. (Not the saucer bit, that is to be expected.) But one day, Ellen absentmindedly drives straight down to the beach where Joyce was killed, and is spotted by Detective Malloy. I’ll get to this detail later. But this was a really really huge scene in my opinion.

But the philosophical and the investigation come to a head when Detective Malloy takes on Evan’s challenge for his students to write an essay explaining how we know this chair exists. And Malloy’s solution? “What chair?” And by this he is saying that we can only discuss this chair’s existence because you are aware that it exists. It is in our collective consciousness – we all know it to be true. And therefore, it must exist. It also undermines the credibility of Evan’s overly academic approach. From Malloy’s perspective, the truth is knowable through the inspection of the evidence. Both men work in proofs… but only one will come out of this story unscathed.

The Ending of Spinning Man Explained

As we head through to the ending, I can tell you maybe what happened, but I can’t tell you definitively what happened. We see Ellen and Evan go to a faculty party, and end up having an argument mid-party. Ellen leaves. Evan wanders off the grounds and begins drinking even more. We see different women’s faces overlapping and converging into each other. What does it all mean? We also learn that after leaving the party, he hooks up with Anna in a car. And while making out, Anna tells him that she loves him. With that? Evan snaps, and pushes Anna out of the car, she hits the pavement on the back of her neck, and she flips out and leaves. With that, Evan has his come to Jesus moment. He wonders what he is capable of.

And with that? We transition back to the beginning – the third thread, where Evan walks into Detective Malloy’s office. Why? To confess. He says that he must have forgotten. He must have been confused, but he’s certain he killed her. It was an affair, and it was wrong, and he accidentally shoved her and she hit her head. And with that? She died. One thing lead to another and he decided to dump her body in the lake. Detective Malloy’s response? No. You didn’t do this. There were no signs of a sexual dalliance. There was a nearby cliff, which she fell off of. Her neck and arms were broken from the fall. You didn’t do this. Wait. What? Did I hear you right Malloy? I didn’t do this?

THiNC’s New Diagnosis False Confession Syndrome

Ok, so I made up that syndrome, but it sounds good doesn’t it? “False Confession Syndrome”  But there is a syndrome that induced false confessions entitled, Memory Distrust Syndrome. And it is this Syndrome which is exactly the phenomenon that this movie is exploring. And it is Memory Distrust Syndrome (coined by Gudjonsson and MacKeith back in the 80’s) that brings about three different types of false confessions: Voluntary, Pressured Compliant, and Pressured Internalized. Basically (and I even purchased a scientific paper from a journal to understand this better. The paper’s title was, “Memory distrust syndrome, confabulation and false confession” by Gudjonsson. And it really was the diary of the innocent man that blew my mind. Here’s a fantastic example from the paper, “For two years I have had the belief that I did not know anything about this case but now I am supposed to have been very much involved. What game is God playing with me? Am I mentally ill, or have been? I would admit to that. Many of the things I have done in the recent years was madness.”) the long and short of it is, people develop a distinct and profound lack of trust of their own memories. Which then? Then they are susceptible to consuming other external suggestions telling them a different reality is more real than actual reality.

But what has this got to do with Evan?!? Well. I thought it was clear. Cough. But I’ll connect the dots for you. As the movie starts, Joyce, heads out to the cliff near the lake, falls, and dies. But as Malloy starts to circle in on Evan, Evan begins to envision that he met her, he was having an affair with her… that maybe he really did kill her. When, in fact, he was 40 minutes late picking up Zelda because he just spaced it, and he was nowhere near the lake. Right? Evan has memory distrust syndrome, and as Malloy pushes harder and harder, he internalizes the pressure, and he voluntarily confessed his guilt in this murder.

Spinning Man Movie Solution Theories

But are you buying that solution to this movie’s details? Are you certain this is the way it went down? Why don’t we walk through the predominant theories that could explain this movie best:

Spinning Man Theory 1 – Joyce Died Accidentally

If you bought what the movie was selling, well, then Evan doesn’t know himself. He is not a credible witness. And he has been undermined by Memory Distrust Syndrome. Much of what we see in the movie is false. The affairs with the students. His time at the lake with Joyce. All of it fake. Evan not only was pressured by the Detective about the murder of Joyce, but also by Ellen for his supposed affair with the student at his old college in Chicago.

Spinning Man Theory 2 – Evan Actually Did Do It

Oh this is rubbish! Of course he killed her! Just one more example of the male hegemony over women everywhere!!! We know that Evan has affairs. He is spending time with students that is questionable in the extreme. Obviously Evan killed Joyce. Think about it for a millisecond. We never once see a cliff. We get zero idea that Joyce would randomly head off to said cliff when she has been invited to a party. Not only that, but her diary talks about an older man that she is enamored with. Obviously Evan did it.

Spinning Man Theory 3 – Ross Killed Her

If you are certain that Joyce was killed, but have decided that Evan is about the least reliable narrator the world has ever known… there is another option. And that, my friends, is Ross. Ross? You know Ross. He is the professor that was chatting with Evan about having sex with a student if he knew he could get away with it. He’s also the man that gave Evan rides when his car was impounded. Now, when we see the man heading to meet with Joyce, we see tweed and that’s about it. Which could be Ross. I checked back through the scenes with the two of them in the car, and you can’t tell if he has a Volvo as well. But if you are looking for someone without a moral care in the world to give, Ross is your guy.

Spinning Man Theory 4 – Ellen Killed Her

I’m probably going to make some of you mad with this particular theory, but, ah, well. This little theory right here is why you guys keep coming back to THiNC. headquarters day after day! hahaha.

But think of it this way. Ellen and Evan had to leave Chicago because of an affair that Evan had with a student. Noticing that her husband has become aloof and distant, she begins following him. Seeing Evan give Joyce and friends a ride, and suspecting that Evan is connecting with her, she follows him when he is supposed to be getting Zelda from camp. Evan and Joyce have sex out at the lake, and then Evan leaves. And then she tosses Joyce from the cliff. Eh? Ok, a stretch, but think about this… why was Ellen so incredibly interested in the news? Why did she drive down to the lake that day? It’s not a stupid idea.

Final Thoughts of Spinning Man Movie

If you take the movie at its word – and Evan didn’t actually do it – then you have to buy into the idea of the Memory Distrust Syndrome. You have to believe that Evan was innocent all along but only came to believe he was guilty after piles of haranguing. But if that doesn’t work for you, you have other options here. The facts and details of the movie are extraordinarily fluid. So with that said… what do you think happened? Was it Evan? Was it the cliff? Or maybe you like the Ross angle? Or maybe you are a true rebel, and you see guilt anytime Ellen comes onto the screen. Or heck, maybe you have a theory of your own? I’d like to hear about it in the comments!

If you’ve gotten this far, you must have really loved this one! haha. It was amazing. And if you are hoping for other movies like it, here are my top three picks:

Edited by, CY