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Straight Up, With A Twist…

In the run-up to Inception, I got thinking about Christopher Nolan’s extensive filmography, and how many movies of his involve massive twists in the last third (The Dark Knight is arguably the exception, unless you consider the addition of a second villain to be a ‘twist’). It got me thinking about the nature of plot twists and how they can essentially harm and help a movie.

Yes, this would be the best twist ending ever...

Note: This article is going to discuss twists on the ends of movies and – as such – might be fairly heavy on the old spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

In fairness not all twists are necessarily monumental. I mean, we frequently discover in films that main characters are not necessarily who they say they are, or the killer turns out to be the person you’d least suspect (even if it makes no sense). These are fairly straightforward twists and ones that we all sort of expect going into particular movies. However, when you talk about “twist endings”, it’s generally reserved for something of a far great magnitude. Something which changes your fundamental understanding of the film. Somethign which leaves you gasping for air, and a little bit in shock if done right – but can leave you fuming if they aren’t.

These sorts of twists are a risky proposition. In order to work and amaze the audience, they need to fundamentally change the viewer’s perspective of the film – to reveal to the viewer that what they saw and what they were watching does not reflect the reality of what occurs. The risks of this approach are obvious: there’s no better way to alienate or antagonise your audience than to make them think they’ve wasted two hours of their lives, to make them wonder what the point of watching the movie was if it was just going to have a shocking twist ending that made the build-up irrelevent. And all this assumes you can do it right; that the twist isn’t ultimately a bummer: something the audience can either see coming a mile off, or calls foul on. And even then, you run the risk of invalidating your entire film for a trick ending.

A twist so good, they put it on the front cover of the DVD...

Of course, we can forgive this twist if the ending is good enough. If the kick from the thrill is enough to make all that came before worthwhile, then we’ll go with it. Some of the best of the M. Night Shymalan endings work on this principle – The Sixth Sense has an ending that doesn’t hold up particularly well on rewatch, but the power of it the first time around is enough to justify the film. The problem is that such a twist really only works once. If the whole movie is built towards one pivotal twist, it makes it a bit difficult to watch the movie again, knowing the key piece of the puzzle it had you struggling to work out the first time. I’m quite probably in the minority on this – I’ve heard arguments that The Sixth Sense holds up quite well to rewatching, but I’ve never found that to be the case myself.

However, the more fascinating twist is one which somehow manages not only to pick apart what the audience thinks they say before, but make it something different entirely. It isn’t simply a deception, but an alternate version of truth. I’m talking about the wonderful sort of twist which makes you want to watch the movie again, instantly. One that paints everything which came before in a different light – one that reveals that you were watching something important, but you just weren’t looking at it the right way. I’d argue that Scorsese’s Shutter Island does that with its ending, revealing the story to be perhaps much more allegorical and personal than audiences might have expected, but I’ll accept that I’m in the minority on this one. M. Night Shymalan’s rather wonderful Unbreakable does this, rather perfectly – you only realise the genre of the movie just before the credits role. And it actually works much better on rewatch because of it.

That’s my perfect type of twist right there, because it requires a very meticulous style of construction, asking you create something which works well when viewed from the outside, but looks entirely different (but no less beautiful) when viewed from within. That takes some skilled crafting right there, and some very meticulous movie-making: almost constructing two films within one.

I’m also quite fond to a powerful closing image for the sake of a powerful closing image, even if it has little bearing on what came before – it just jolts the audience and makes sure they’re awake. I’m thinking of that so-iconic-it’s-impossible-to-spoil ending from the original Planet of the Apes or even the final moments of The Mist. Both moments don’t really change what came before, or the audience’s perspective on what came before, but do offer a visceral bunch to the gut – one the viewer wasn’t expecting.

These are just my own little amblings on twists and twist endings. I’d been thinking about it a while, and thought I might just put it into words.

6 Responses

  1. I always refrain for metioning that Unbreakable is one of the best [enter the genre name here] because it does spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it. That said, for me, Unbreakable is Shyamalan’s masterpiece and that’s partly due to a twist that makes the film even better on subsequent viewing. I agree about The Sixth Sense, a film I’ve never loved as much as most people.

    I think Nolan has become the master of the twist ending though – Memento is great, The Prestige is a bit of genius (well the film is genius, the twist just helps attain that level of creativity).

    Of course, speaking of bad twists in bad movies – how about the remake of Planet of the Apes. It was such a bad twist we needed a sequel to tie up loose ends, but the film bombed so heavily Burton was too ashamed to return to it.

    Other than those mentioned I love the twists in Usual Suspects and Primal Fear also.

    • Yep, The Usual Suspects is a great one. And I adore Primal Fear. Best law movie ever. Movie that made me want to be a lawyer.

    • I love The Prestige, and the twist was damn good, but the ending always got on my nerves, for purely logistic reasons. I won’t spoil it, but seriously? Come on!

      • I love that twist. If only because it’s right in front of you – you just miss it because it’s not what you’re looking for.

  2. I love the Usual Suspects twist. It changes the whole dynamic of the movie and I also adore those of Memento and Fight Club. Tellingly all 3 are in my Top 20 movies.

    Big shout out for The Crying Game, Empire Strikes Back and Psycho.

  3. Unbreakable’s twist is iffy with me. It’s more of a cliffhanger to a movie that never was rather than an impactful rewriting of the story at hand. The more I think about it, the more it sounds like a rejected Twilight Zone episode. Think about it: a fragile comic book collector believes that his mission in life is to discover a real superhero, so he starts killing huge batches of people in airplane crashes and train wrecks in the hope that there will be a miraculous survivor? The ending is something of a letdown, even if it works in the context of what the film is all about. Up until the last five minutes, Shyamalan had done a superb job of making a psychologically realistic film. The twist ending is following comic book logic.

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