The Art Of The Twist Ending - Three Films That Got It Right
A good twist at the end of a film can make for a memorable experience. It can become the type of thing your itching to talk about, and struggling to keep to yourself for the benefit of any friends who haven't seen the film, yet. It can become the source of discussion and debate among friends for days afterward – each arguing about how well it fit, or whether they saw it coming. A good twist can even go some way to salvaging the reputation of an otherwise average film. People may be willing to overlook the poorer qualities of a film, and focus all of their attention on those final moments.
A poor twist can have the opposite effect, though. It can completely ruin an otherwise perfectly decent film. Just as a good twist can become the main talking point of an otherwise mediocre film, a poorly executed twist can become a sticking point for viewers – hurting the reputation of a film may have been better remembered without it.
But, what's the difference, though?
Below, I'll be discussing four different films that I happen to think had very effective twist endings. Ones that actually served the movie as a whole, rather than coming across as a cheap gimmick. These are films that did a twist ending right.
Now, it probably doesn't need to be said, but I feel like I should anyway - this is an article about twist endings in film so, of course, I'll be spoiling the hell out of what I consider to be some damn good films. If you haven't actually seen any of them, and don't want to have them spoiled, stop reading.
The Usual Suspects
I know, I know. It's the obvious choice for a list like this, isn't it? Maybe even a little too obvious. The Usual Suspects would have to be one of the first films to come to mind, for most people, at the mere mention of a 'twist ending'. But then, there is a fairly good reason for that, isn't there? It wasn't something that you could easily forget.
There are two separate threads to the story in The Usual Suspects. The first is the 'present day' aftermath of a massacre at the San Perdro Bay harbour, where many people were killed and a boat was destroyed. There were only two survivors to this massacre - Roger 'Verbal' Kint (Kevin Spacey), a known con-man with cerebral palsy, and a Hungarian criminal clinging to life in a nearby hospital. The police are, naturally, determined to find out exactly what happened. Unfortunately, the Hungarian doesn't speak English, and is initially unable to answer questions, anyway - so, Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) focuses his attention on Verbal, who has already been given immunity in exchange for testifying, in order to find out what he knows before he is set to be released.
The second thread is told through flash-backs, as Verbal tells Agent Kujan the story of how five known criminals were once rounded up for a police line-up, following a hi-jacking. None of these men were responsible for this particular crime - but, motivated by a mixture of opportunism and anger at the police, they take the opportunity to join forces and hatch a new scheme of their own.
It's not long into the formation of this new team, though, that things begin to get complicated. Keyser Söze, a mysterious figure often taken to be little more than an urban legend in the criminal underworld, enters the picture - informing the team, through his employee Kobayashi, that each of them had, at some point in the past, unknowingly inconvenienced Keyser Söze himself with their crimes, and that now he wanted them to pay their debts. The group are pressed into taking on a job for Keyser Söze, involving breaking up a drug-deal at the San Pedro Bay harbour.
Agent Kujan doesn't entirely buy Verbal's story, though. He believes that the entire job was simply a cover to allow Keyser Söze to board the boat and kill a man who may be able to identify him to the police. Kojun also believes that one of the team may, in fact, actually be Keyser Söze - particularly, corrupt ex-police officer Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).Verbal finally breaks down - admitting that Agent Kojun is most likely right, only moments before he is released.
The final moment's of the film show Verbal being released while, at the same time, Agent Kujan relaxes, thinking that he was discovered the identity of Keyser Söze. It's only then that he realises that so many of the names which featured prominently in Verbal's story could easily have been drawn from notices and items around his office. At the same time, the sketch based on the Hungarian's description of Keyser Söze is faxed to the police station, and it shows a clear match for the face of Roger 'Verbal' Kint. Of course, by the time Agent Kujan is able to give chase, Keyser Söze is already long gone.
Of course, there's also the clever, and occasionally missed, second twist in the form of the faxed image. Keyser Söze's entirely plan was to ensure that he could never be identified, and he left thinking that he had succeeded. Yet, thanks to the Hungarian criminal who had managed to escape his attention, the police now know exactly what Keyser Söze looks like.
What made this twist particularly memorable was the way it called everything else into question. If everything we know about the boat massacre was revealed to us through Verbal Kint, and Verbal was really Keyser Söze, then how much of what we were told was actually true? Something like that should be infuriating - yet, here, it fits perfectly with the mysterious nature of Keyser Söze. The whole thing becomes an intriguing puzzle that you're likely to be struggling with long after the film is over.
It was actually an extremely clever set-up in other ways, too. Even if you could pick out something that seemed to be a plot-hole, it could easily be brushed aside as an, entirely in-universe, conflict between what really happened, and the story told by 'Verbel' Kint. In the end, whether it all fits together actually became irrelevant for me. I wanted it to fit together - and, I wanted to work out how it did.
The Sixth Sense would be the classic choice here, I know. For a period of time, M. Night Shyamalan became known for his twist endings – to such an extent that it was basically expected of him, and may have ultimately hurt his future career. And, the cause of all of that was his first film, with its 'he was dead all along' ending. It was good – I enjoyed the film, and I didn't see the end coming. And, most importantly, if you watch it a second time, it does actually fit. But, it's not the Shyamalan film I'm including on this list. Instead I'm going for his follow-up film, Unbreakable. Why? Because, personally, I just happen to think that it's a better film, overall. And, I don't think it has ever got the attention it deserved.
Unbreakable is, essentially, a superhero movie – though, it is one that is played absolutely straight. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard – his family, and everyone around him, are caught by surprise when he is the only survivor of a train crash. Not only that, but David was able to walk away from the wreckege without a scratch on him. Elijah Price (Samual L. Jackson), on the other hand, is a man born with brittle and fragile bones – earning him the nickname 'Mr. Glass' as a child. Elijah is drawn to David, believing that there is something special about him
Elijah's theory is that, if there is someone as frail and fragile as him in the world, then it makes sense that there must be someone on the other end of the spectrum. Someone naturally strong, and in perfect health. Someone 'unbreakable' (see what they did, there?). Elijah believes that, if he can find this person, he can give the world a true hero. It seems as though, with David (a man who survived a train crash unharmed, and who has no memory of ever being sick), Elijah may have found who he is looking for. So, where does the twist come in? Well, there's the little matter of exactly how far Elijah was prepared to go to find the person he was looking for.
It may all come across as a little cheesy, but it really fits perfectly with the story being told. As serious and sombre as it may be, Unbreakable is still the origin story of a super-hero – and, every good hero needs a villain. And, you know what? Mr. Glass is absolutely right. In comics, the super-hero and his nemesis often do start out as friends.
And, besides, Mr. Glass is an awesome name for a super-villain.
This one is pretty straight-forward. The Others was an attempt at a sort of old-fashioned 'classy' sort of horror story. You know - the sort of film that relies on atmosphere, and the gradual build-up of tension, rather than cheap scares. And, it did that extremely well - The Others was never overtly scary, but it was definitely creepy. It was also a slow-moving and sombre affair, overall - which may, sadly, be a bit too much of a test of patience for some potential viewers. That's their loss, though.
It is shortly after the end of the World War 2 and Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman), devout Catholic and mother of two, lives with her family in a remote country house. The house is also home to serving staff - the elderly nanny Mrs Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), the gardener Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and a mute serving girl named Lydia (Elaine Cassidy). Her children, Anna (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), both suffer from a rare disease that requires them to be kept from direct sunlight - meaning that they have been forced to spend much of their lives indoors.
Recently, though, an increasing series of unexplained occurrences has lead some (the children, in particular) to believe that they are not quite alone in this remote house. All of the classic horror movie standards are present - strange noises, disembodied voices and ghostly sightings - leading to the family becoming increasingly convinced that the house is haunted. Also, Grace's own encounter with the figure of an old woman leads her to believe that her children are in danger.
Their investigation into these increasingly strange occurrences lead the children to the discovery grave-stones bearing the names of the three servants. The servants themselves promptly appear, and the children flee back to the house - hiding as the servants follow, and as Grace appears to confront them. At this point, the three servants are quite happy to admit that they are, in fact, dead - and, that they have been for the past 50 years. But, it also becomes quickly apparent that they don't actually mean any harm to the family.
Yet, that's not really enough to count as a 'twist ending' is it? Well, at the same time, the children have another encounter with the strange old woman that Grace saw earlier - only, this time, she appears to be conducting a séance. We have a sudden shift of perspective, then - and, suddenly, we are watching another family, also convinced that they are living in a haunted house, and desperately trying to make contact with the spirits.
This revelation forces Grace and her children to remember the events that led up to the arrival of the three servants. Grace is forced to confront the intense isolation, and gradual wearing away of her sanity, that resulted in her killing her own children and, finally, herself. And, all three are forced to accept that not only are the servants truly dead, but so are they.
It might seem a bit strange that I would deliberately decide not to include The Sixth Sense on this list, then go ahead and include a film which depends on the same basic idea for its twist ending. Well, just as I firmly believe that Unbreakable is a better M. Night Shyamalan film, I also happen to think that The Others does a better job with the whole 'they were dead all along' twist. And, that's really all there is to it.
© 2013 Dallas Matier
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