Twist and Doubt: Movie Plot Twists & Surprise Endings
There's nothing better than a movie with a great twist, something to give you a sense of uncanny fright...
There's nothing better than a movie with a great twist, something to give you a sense of uncanny fright that leaves you shivering and tingling with an excited bemusement. And the idea of a revelatory twist goes way back, a classic example can be found by those canny Ancient Greeks; Sophocles' Athenian tragedy Oedipus Rex has one of the greatest, and most devastating, surprise endings of all time. As the climax comes to its roaring zenith, the mortifying truth dawns upon Oedipus like a million gas hobs left on in a million homes: he's murdered his own father, King Laius, and wed his biological mother, Queen Jocasta. Crushing news, no doubt. News that, by Zeus' divine ass crack, can only be met with the gouging out of one's own eyes.
As blighting and truly tragic this news is for poor old Oedipus, it was great news for story-telling and would forever be echoed in film (and elsewhere) - think how many gouged eyes you've seen, like in Hitchcock's The Birds. But there are many techniques that can be used to fool us, cajole us, tweak us and coach us along, dangling the popcorn of revelation tentatively in front of us, leading us along a path littered with red herrings and confusion.
So let's look at some great examples of this in film, but not wanting to ruin these great movies, I have not revealed the twist or endings, there are no spoilers here, I enjoy the thrill of a plot being unveiled too much to want to spoil it for everyone. The list is long because I couldn't bear losing too many, even so there are still a helluva lot I had to leave behind.
Fight Club (dir. David Fincher)
Here we have a classic example of the unreliable narrator, a brilliant plot device, commonly used in literature and one that relishes the end revelation with the glee of a pig in a cesspit. Fooling you into thinking you can trust the protagonist - why wouldn't you? - only to find out he doesn't even know who his is himself. This is called anagnorsis and is the same recognition by the protagonist of their own true persona that was used in Oedipus Rex. Here's the last scene in the movie where the buildings collapse while the Pixies' awesome Where is My Mind plays on.
Don't Look Now (dir. Nicolas Roeg)
The director, Nicolas Roeg, is a remarkable filmmaker. And this is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. A couple grieve the loss of their child, bitterly entangled in regret and remorse, but still deeply in love (shown in the steamy love scene, which is as real as it gets as Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were a couple at the time). Throughout the movie a sense of unnerving, impending doom permeates, floating through it like a dust cloud, haunting the movie and driving it onwards. The film mainly takes place under the foreboding presence of an out of season Venice, a place so creepy you'll be sitting in your apartment with every light in the house on crying for your mommy, behind a barricade of pillows while sucking your thumb and cuddling the cat. It's nothing shy of a masterpiece with an air of malice bearing down throughout, but it's also preternaturally beautiful and a great example of Freud's das unheimliche (the unhomely); something that is familiar yet foreign at the same time. This is a film that is both artful, and abjectly terrifying. And that's just Donald Sutherland's wig.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvin Kershner)
Who doesn't know the revelation in this popular movie franchise? (so popular some people name their kids after the characters). Not many people I imagine, although there are a few, you know who you are. But yes, when it first arrived who could've guess the revelation that was announced in this part, and confirmed by Yoda in Jedi. It's an involving ending to a movie, thickening the plot tantalisingly for the finale featuring those furry George Lucas look-alikes. Every epic space Western needs a gasp-worthy disclosure, and incest. And here's theirs, a lightsaber fight between Luke and Darth, at the end of which the secret is revealed. This is the one and only spoiler. "Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son..."
The Usual Suspects (dir. Bryan Singer)
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." This statement is an allusion to how the audience is completely fooled by the set up and structure of this movie. It's perhaps the greatest twist in modern cinema, and the reason it is so befuddling is because it not only makes excellent use of the unreliable narrator - the startling ending is a magical moment of unveiling - but it's a melting pot for literary devices; mixing the aforementioned unreliable narrator with non-linear narration, reverse chronology, in medias res, Chekhov's gun and red herrings. Throwing all these at us with the wild abandon of kid in a snowball fight. When I first finished watching it I felt like I'd been pulled through the looking glass backwards, while my true father was revealed, as I simultaneously swallowed the red pill and was being pulled out of the matrix - such was the shock and awe I felt. Here's the excellent and famous line-up scene. "In English, please."
The Big Sleep (dir. Howard Hawks)
As slippery as an eel covered in olive oil wriggling through a tunnel of butter then sliding down a water slide, and coming out onto a slip and slide covered in wet moss. Even the script-writers claim they can't tell you what's going on in this movie. Try watching it and then explain the plot to somebody, it's impossible. Directed by the masterly Howard Hawks from a Raymond Chandler novel, it's classic film noir featuring Bogart and Bacall, old Hollywood. The impenetrable plot was paid homage to in The Big Lebowski, and it has more twists than a game of Twister played at a Chubby Checker reunion gig at Jack Rabbit Slims.
Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock was the master of the twist and this was perhaps his greatest, or at least most famous. The twist halfway through the movie involving the shower scene was so shocking audiences screamed with terror and babies were borne by women who weren't even pregnant. It was also the first movie where the filmmaker himself asked audiences to not reveal the surprises in store, and some theatres had a cardboard cut-out of the man himself asking audiences to keep their mouths shut. Hitchcock could have his whole oeuvre on this list being the master of suspense, and he would litter his movies with something called a "MacGuffin". A plot device used to confuse and bedazzle the audience while driving the plot onwards, but it doesn't always have to be important or relevant to the plot. Confused? You should be. To help you out an example is something like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the contents of which we never see or know. Or the package in Barton Fink, see below.
Saw (dir. James Wan)
This is a great modern horror, full of red herrings. What other colour would they be with this amount of blood? The first of the now common horror subgenre, torture porn, I'm not too keen on the sequels but this was a great watch; thrilling, disgusting, horrifying, suspenseful, with a completely surprising ending. It blew me away and made me shiver like a newborn duckling, fearful of the dark, hiding anything sharp in my flat in case my flatmate decided to go crazy in the night and I'd awake in some contraption he'd fashioned out of an old motorbike helmet, some kitchen utensils, rusty nails, bin liners, VHS tapes, a shell suit, the rotting contents of our fridge and an old stopwatch.
The Seventh Continent (Der siebente Kontinent) (dir. Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke is a singular voice in modern cinema; brave, shocking, rebellious, hostile, obstructively intelligent but always enlightening. And this is a classic example of his brilliance; it's a bleak movie which starts off in a very mundane way, with lots of long shots on everyday objects, watching a family go about the banal rituals of their everyday lives. I don't want to give away anything because it's worth watching and finding out for yourselves. I'll just say it's a very powerful and very disturbing movie, also very moving and painfully emotional. Like his others films - Hidden, Funny Games - it's a challenging piece of cinema.
Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan)
A cleverly structured movie about memory, from the director of the recent Batman films; one set of scenes, in black and white, progress forward while a second set of scenes, in colour, are in reverse chronology with the two arcs meeting at the end of the movie. Interestingly on the DVD I own there is a version that re-edits both sequences into chronological order. It's a mindf#ck of a film, and a true shock when the ending comes around. Cleverly it starts by placing the viewer in the same position as Guy Pearce's protagonist, looking over his body at the tattoos wondering what the heck is going on, and what they are clues to. As the plot moves forwards and backwards the confusion grows, as does our intrigue until the damning finale.
Here's the opening scene.
The Crying Game (dir. Neil Jordan)
Parodied endlessly on shows like Family Guy and the Simpsons, could there be a more terrifying disclosure? It's also very playful and mean with its audience, allowing us to fancy this person under a false pretext. Such is film, suspend your disbelief and this happens. I said I'd never trust a movie again after watching this. And I didn't - ish. Anyway, the big hands are a giveaway, I knew all along. Honest.
Planet of the Apes (dir. Franklin J. Schaffner)
A classic of an ending, old Heston screaming out, distraught and dejected, angry but impotent. This is another classic surprise ending which really jolts you the first time you see it, the harrowing conclusion is a real kick to the soft-spot while also being saddening and poignant. It's going to smart, for sure. Here's the scene where Charlton tells the ape to take its stinking paws off him. Yeah!
Barton Fink (dir. Joel Coen)
A crazy, dark-carnival of a film from the Brothers Coen, centring around a script writer in Hollywood in the 1930s. From the start it has a surreal edge and it gets more and more bizarre as the films drives forwards with the "MacGuffin" of the package coming in about halfway through. It wears its many influences like a badge of honour; ranging from Preston Sturges, The Shining, Shakespeare and the Old Testament, while also alluding to various writers, mainly William Faulkner. It's a fantastic and fantastical film, and a typical example of the Coen Brothers' uniqueness. It couldn't have been made by anybody else.
Here's the great scene where John Goodman comes charging down the corridor screaming, "I'LL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!!!" - Exceptional.
The Player (dir. Robert Altman)
A fantastic Robert Altman movie - they all are - this has traces of noir while also taking a satirical lunge at Hollywood. It opens with an amazing tracking shot which is a homage to both A Touch of Evil and Hitchcock's Rope (a movie which takes place in real-time then edited to appear as a single continuous shot), which you can watch here. And in Altman's trade mark playful style the camera rests on conversations we can't hear, with the floating camera seemingly going wherever it wants. It's full of insider jokes, and critiques a movie business that treats the artists badly and mocks producers who sacrifice good quality for commercial success. Also features around sixty big Hollywood names making cameos. And again, a great ending.
Seven (dir. David Fincher)
A true shocker, the whole movie is as disturbing as waking up next to your girlfriend who's naked and decapitated while you have blood on your hands and a strange note written in Egyptian hieroglyphics telling you how to dispose of the body. From grisly murder to grisly murder, the killer plays with the detectives like a giant lizard in downtown Tokyo, until the sickening ending when Brad Pitt finds out exactly what's in that box. After watching it having a shower to wash away the feeling of disgust is essential.
Here's the sloth scene. M'mm.
Unbreakable (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
M Night Showaddywaddy is the king of a twist, he can't make a movie without a swinging denouement to make your head spin like you were Linda Blair on a merry-go-round. But just because you put a twist on the end does not a decent movie make. But this one is a great movie, I think it's his best. The way its shot, the idea of a Superman walking the earth unknowingly, it's one of the finest comic book-movies around, with Willis' cape shot majestically, like the raw immediacy of a Frank Miller graphic while also evoking Batman's caped crusader and Will Eisner's The Spirit. This was his second movie and still heralded the beginning of a new talent, a talent that has seemed to dwindle with each passing film.
Jacob's Ladder (dir. Adrian Lyne)
Way before M Night Showaddywaddy, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, came this alarmingly disturbing film. Trippy, delirious, hallucinogenic and as creepy as a child talking backwards with empty eye sockets; it was one of the first movies I saw, as a kid, where I thought, what the heck is going on here then? Then the ending came and I sat, jaw agape, while in my mind I both applauded its genius while calming myself from its disturbing, and as I was to find, long-lasting impact. This scene is very creepy and was a massive influence on the Silent Hill video-games.
Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski is another master of the twist and this film is his masterpiece. Densely complicated, this neo-noir centres around the historical disputes over land and water rights in southern California during the 1920s and 1930s - itself a very complicated matter. The movie is a multi-layered hermeneutic onion of amystery that sees Jack Nicholson's laconic LA private detective JJ Gittes hired to spy on the chief engineer for the city's water department. Labyrinthine plots twists and incestuous revelations abound as Jack gets more and more entwined in the murky goings-on, and Faye Dunaway's femme fatale. Features the classic line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Good advice. The hoodlum with the knife in this clip is Polanski.
Oldboy (dir. Park Chan-Wook)
Oh Dae-su, befallen, yours is a blackly comic tale and this film owes much to the grandiose, revenge-arced and incestuous nature of Greek tragedy, as it plays out its gripping story. It starts with Choi Min-Sik's brilliant display of a rowdy, but humorous drunk, and then the tragedy is played out against a kinetic backdrop of torture and mayhem, wonderfully created by Park Chan-Wook. We see moments of biting violence interspersed with black humour as our confused hero leads his way to his own tragic flaw in a beautifully realised way. You almost miss this film beginning as the momentum carries you along, building, grasping and ultimately exploding, an action we see mirrored in our hero. It's his tale, and it's an amusingly tragic one at that, gripping from start to finish and featuring a live octopus eating scene.
Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch)
Lynch, like Hitchcock, is a master of the MacGuffin, and his movies always have a sense of das unheimliche, and this neo-noir is as good an example as any. The thing is with Lynch is, that, although there are many twists and turns in his movies, the viewer has no idea exactly what they are, due to the complexity of the plots and strangeness of the imagery. But that's what makes them so highly enjoyable, you watch his films knowing you are going to come away scared, confused, distressed, but ultimately satisfied. One of the greatest filmmakers ever, here's the opening Jitterbug scene from Mulholland Drive.
The Descent (dir. Neil Marshall)
A very intense, claustrophobic British horror. The first half of the movie, with a group of girls going potholing, is terrifying enough without the second half's horror.
The whole film is a nerve-shredding joy from the traumatising opening until the misleading ending, which pulls the cinematic rug from under your feet and leaves you shaken and emotional lying on the floor staring at the blinking lights of the auditorium, wondering what the f#ck just happened.
Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources (dir. Claude Berri)
Two great French movies, although like Tango without Cash, Tom without Jerry, Derek without Clive, you can't have one without the other. Taking place in rural Provence, two local farmers trick a newcomer out of a water source on his newly inherited property. The first film ends tragically, but wait until the second where sweet revenge is enacted upon the conniving and immoral farmers. The final twist at the end of Manon des Sources is so bittersweet it's like chewing on a triple chocolate cheesecake and getting lemon juice squirted in your eyes while straining to watch your home being demolished, and getting an all body massage. It features a really sad and
poignant piece of music composed for the film by Jean-Claude Petit, familiar to anyone who's seen those Stella Artois adverts that rip-off these films endlessly.
L.A .Confidential (dir. Curtis Hanson)
A brilliant film taken from a brilliant novel by James Ellroy, a man who writes like he was slinging punches at you. The novel is a very complex work and to make a film that is so enjoyable, yet true to the book's spirit, shows the skills of the director and his team. It's captures both the allure and pizzazz of the period and its seedy underbelly, beginning with the Night Owl murders, it's essentially a
gripping murder mystery with the plot wrestling its way through the film, much like Russell Crowe's bearish yet captivating performance. Fantastiche.
Les Diaboliques (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
A French film with a great twist, shot in moody black and white. This film is one big curveball with the plot twisting, turning and curving like a rollercoaster in lacy underwear and a sexy French accent. Watching it is akin to treading tentatively through a dark haunted mansion full of bear traps and swinging axe-pendulums. You watch it waiting for various horrors to happen only to be shocked and intrigued at every turn. In the end credits it features an anti-spoiler statement from the director: "Don't be devils. Don't ruin the interest your friends could take in this film. Don't tell them what you saw. Thank you for them." We'd all do well to heed this. It was remade, badly, as Diabolique with Sharon Stone. Stick to the original, c'est tres bon.
Audition (dir. Takashi Miike)
From Japanese director Takashi Miike, a man who could unnerve Satan himself. US torture porn has got nothing on this guy, his live-action adaptation of Ichi the Killer has to be seen to be believed, but this is one of my favourites. The film casually trots along focusing on a middle-aged widower who's looking for a new love so he sets up a fake audition to find her. It's one of those movies where audience members walk out in disgust like fu#king wimps. Stick with it until the end, but be warned it's graphically violent, disturbing, and mangled beyond belief, but also masterfully suspenseful.
Brazil (dir. Terry Gilliam)
Gilliam's triumph channels many ideas and constructs in its dystopian guise; reality versus fantasy, the individual versus society, control versus rebellion, the overwhelming nature of bureaucracy in modernity
which this clips conveys brilliantly, showing the Ministry of Information in action. And it is about a man who dreams to be free from the constraints of the repressive structures around him. Styles, periods, centuries clash in the hyper-reality of this imagined world. A boldly daring film, it seems like a body of work rather than one simple film, but that's all it is, and it's in this list because of its bravely nihilistic ending.
Clue (dir. Jonathan Lynn)
A marvellously enjoyable romp of a movie, played out like a Bertie Wooster novel written by Agatha Christie, and based on the popular Cluedo game. It stars the fantastic Tim Curry on resplendent form, a great cast which includes the criminally underused Christopher Lloyd, and from start to finish it's a joy to watch, providing the audience with three - three! - alternate endings because it's so good to us. As much fun as jumping around a bouncy castle in an inflatable sumo-suit with someone tickling you while high on laughing gas. Best (and only?) film ever to be made from a board game.
The Conversation (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
This is a very intense and perfectly executed movie. It starts with a great shot of surveillance and descends on a path into Gene Hackman's paranoid surveillance expert's mind and what he thought he heard - it's taut, thrilling and disturbing. It plays excellently with the idea of how something can be taken out of context and how that can manifest itself and plague a person's mind like a buzzing fly of doubt. The finale is haunting and captures the mood of the entire movie - ambiguous, troubled, paranoid. The film Enemy of the State, also starring Hackman, seems to be a complete rip-off, I mean homage, to it.
Bad Education (La Mala Educación) (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
A film by Pedro Almodóvar, from the very opening is draws you in, capturing your attention and then the plot unfolds using flashbacks and a film within the film (metafiction) to drive the plot along, traversing themes such as Catholicism, transsexuality, child and drug abuse, meeting some
truly vile characters along the way. It's masterfully done and as such it could happily sit next to Hitchcock greatest works of suspense.
Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa)
From the great Akira Kurosawa, famous for his samurai movies, this one is my favourite of his. It looks at and criticises the problems of the subjectivity of perception. A crime is committed and is witnessed by four different parties, all of whom recount a different, contradictory, story. An idea that has had a profound effect on modern science, psycho-analysis, and post-modern theory in literature and film. But forgetting that it's just a great movie that will arouse your curiosity and
engage your intelligence. The story is revealed to us in flashback, and, unprecedented at the time, the viewer is left to unravel the truth and decide which, if any, of the accounts is true.
Election (dir. Alexander Payne)
An enjoyably dark satirical masterpiece by Alexander Payne who directed Sideways, centring on Matthew Broderick's struggling teacher and Reese Witherspoon's twisted, preppy pupil. These two characters are ruthlessly ambitious and callous, both using whatever means necessary to stop the other, and the pace of the movie never lets up gripping you in a vice of satire from start to finish - as enthralling and dark as any thriller, with a deliciously satisfying ending.
The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed)
Voted No. 1 British movie by the BFI (British Film Institute), but what do they know. We all know Withnail & I is the greatest British movie ever made, but this is a close second. A film noir shot beautifully, set in Post-War Vienna - all desolate buildings and crumbling ruins - it sees the mercurial master Orson Welles playing the devilishly tricky Harry Lime, a fascinating individual who is essentially a villain, but a seductively alluring one. Towards the end of the movie he's confronted by an old pal on a Ferris wheel about his misdemeanours, and he famously answers with a merciless speech comparing the people below to dots. Back on the ground he makes the famous "cuckoo clocks" speech; you can see this classic scene here.
Night of the Living Dead (dir. George A. Romero)
Who can forget the closing shot of this movie? After the horrors and thrills it puts us through, Romero's groundbreaking work doesn't shy away from an unsatisfactory ending - common now in horror - a ending that at the time had politic and social connotations that reverberated with the feeling of unrest that had dominated America in the 1960s. If any film was an allegory of its time, this is it.
Rosemary's Baby (dir. Roman Polanski)
Another Polanski film featuring an elfin Mia Farrow who along with her husband has just moved into an old Gothic New York apartment where they are warned the place has a disturbing history. They befriend an elderly couple who Mia dislikes. The film is
tense and feverish with a bombshell of a finale that hits you like a gut punch from your own mother.