Monday, 6 March 2017

Three Great Twist Endings in Film

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 afterwards – 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.

The ideal situation would, of course, have to be a last-minute twist that actually improved the film on repeated viewings - as the audience began to pay close attention to any clues that pointed toward what was coming, or simply enjoyed the very different context provided by their knowledge of the twist.

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 – harming the reputation of a film which may have, otherwise, been remembered more kindly.

But, what's the difference, though?

Below, I'll be discussing three 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.

The Usual Suspects

Yes, I know - it's the obvious choice for a list like this one. It may even be a little too obvious. For may, The Usual Suspects would have to be one of the first films to come to mind at the mere mention of a 'twist ending'. Of course, there was a very good reason for that - it was, quite simply, one of the most memorable twists in recent film history.

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 quickly agree to work together on a planned heist 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 seem like 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 that expectation may have damaged his career, somewhat. He even seems to have to that familiar well with his most recent film, Split.

All of that was largely due to the success of his first film, of course, and its impressive "he was actually dead all along" ending. As someone who had actually been able to see the film at the cinema, entirely unspoiled and as part of a large audience, it had been a genuinely great experience. But, of course, The Sixth Sense isn't the film that I'm going to talk about, here. Instead, I'm going to focus my attention on his follow-up film, Unbreakable. Why? Well, because I just happen to think that it's a better film, overall - and, that the twist that it is able to pull off is just as entertaining, and just as effective, in its own way.

Unbreakable is, essentially, a superhero movie – though, it is one that is played absolutely straight. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard – and, seemingly, entirely ordinary. This all seems to change, though, when David finds himself as the only survivor of a train crash - not only surviving where so many others lost their lives, but doing so seemingly without injury.

Elijah Price (Samual L. Jackson), on the other hand, seems to be David Dunn's exact opposite. He is a man born with brittle bones - a man who capable of suffering severe injuries at even the simplest, and most minor, accident. As a child, this earned him the nickname "Mr. Glass" - and, as an adult, it places his health at constant risk as he strives to manage his condition.

Learning about the strange case of David Dunn, Elijah seems drawn to this seemingly 'unbreakable' man - clearly convinced 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 would also be someone on the other end of the spectrum - and, by meeting David Dunn, he believes that he may have found this person.

Elijah, a man with a life-long obsession with both modern stories of super-heroes and the myths and legends that inspired them, believes that, if he can find such a person, he can give the world its first true super-hero. Although it takes some time (the course of much of the film, in fact), David Dunn eventually seems to come around to Elijah's way of thinking - seeming ready and willing to become what Elijah Price wants him to be.

So, where does the twist come in, then? Well, that concerns exactly how far Elijah is prepared to go to find what he is looking for - which, as it turns out, is quite a bit further than any ordinary person could conceive of. Learning that Elijah Price was actually the one responsible for the train crash that had revealed David Dunn (along with many other tragedies), David is left with no other choice but to see the man he had come to view as a friend sent to prison.

It may all come across as a little bit cheesy, admittedly - but, it really does fit perfectly what the sort of story that is being told, here. Unbreakable is, after all, the origin story of a super-hero - and, every good hero needs a villain. Elijah even pointed out, himself, that the super-hero and his nemesis often do start out as friends, in the comics. Also, Mr. Glass is a pretty great name for a super-villain.

The Others

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 really 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 become common occurrences - 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, in particular are in danger.

Their investigation into these increasingly strange occurrences lead the children to the discovery of 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 seance. 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.

Now, I suppose that it might seem a bit strange that I would deliberately choose not to include The Sixth Sense on this list, only to go ahead and include a film which not only depends on the same basic idea for its twist, but was also not as successful a film, overall. The reason for that is simple enough, though. Just as a firmly believe that Unbreakable is actually a much better M. Night Shyamalan film, I also happen to feel that The Others provides a more interesting take on the whole "they were dead all along" twist. The sudden shift of perspective that the film manages to pull off, as we are suddenly introduced to this new family, was genuinely great - as was the sudden change in perspective that it offered on what we had, earlier, been led to believe was evidence of a haunting. The whole idea that these innocent spirits were, unknowingly, terrifying the new occupants of their home definitely changed the tone of the film on repeated viewings.

Also, I just happen to be a big fan of the sort of Gothic horror that this film strives for - so, there is probably a bit of personal bias in my decision to include it.

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